Tyranny of the Majority and Winner-Take-All
Sean Parnell - Nov 21, 2019
One argument for retaining the Electoral College and its state-by-state process for electing the president is that it provides a check on raw majoritarian power, sometimes referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.”
One of the many arguments for retaining the Electoral College and its state-by-state process for electing the president is that it provides a check on raw majoritarian power, sometimes referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.” While “tyranny” is a loaded word, the concept is deeply embedded in the Constitution and our republican form of government. It means that sometimes, a majority (or plurality) of voters (or elected officials that represent them) isn’t enough to get what you want.
Obvious examples are the Bill of Rights, the veto power of presidents and governors, and all supermajority requirement, like the one to ratify treaties in the U.S. Senate (plus the existence of the Senate to begin with). The idea wasn’t that minorities should control government, but that majorities aren’t always right and can even be abusive. Thus majorities cannot be allowed to get their way all the time – which necessarily, of course, means that the minority does on occasion prevail over the majority.
This point has led to a curious development in the debate over the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV), namely an attempt by its advocates to co-opt the argument about tyranny of the majority. In essence, NPV argues that because nearly every state awards its electors on a “winner-take-all” basis to the winner of the statewide popular vote, only the majority’s preference is represented in the Electoral College. (Maine and Nebraska award 2 electors to the statewide winner and the remainder to the winner of each congressional district.)
This argument was made recently by John Koza, the founder and chairman of the NPV campaign, in a debate at The Cooper Union (a full video of the debate is here; the relevant comments by Koza begin at about 29 minutes). These comments are similar to those I’ve heard recently from NPV lobbyists, one of whom explained to me that winner-take-all is the “real problem” with the Electoral College that NPV is seeking to address.
It’s an odd argument, however. By definition, the goal of National Popular Vote is, in fact, to ensure that the plurality or majority of voters nationally always gets its way. The compact doesn’t allocate electors in some proportion to each candidate’s share of the national vote, it awards the entire block of 270+ electors to the candidate receiving the most votes nationally. If winner-take-all at the state level is tyranny of the majority, then the same applied at a national scale is even more so. At least the state-by-state election of electors represents local majorities, and guarantees some regional balance, instead of a raw national majority.
If NPV lobbyists were right, that state-by-state election of electors on a winner-take-all basis is the real problem because it represents a form of tyranny of the majority, then the solution would be some sort of proportional allocation of electors. The solution certainly would not be a larger version of winner-take-all. NPV lobbyists could more reasonably advocate either the Maine/Nebraska congressional district model or some other similar system.
One final note: In his comments at The Cooper Union debate, Koza referred to Save Our States representatives as “defending the current winner-take-all system.” This is incorrect – we defend the Electoral College as an institution that preserves the federal nature of our republic and allows each state as a sovereign political entity to have its unique voice heard in the selection of the president. Whether that’s through a winner-take-all, the Maine/Nebraska model, or some other allocation method based on the preferences of a state’s citizens, is up for each state to decide. The principle remains the same: the electoral votes of each state should represent the preference of the citizens of each state; they should not be given away based on a national majority or plurality.