For an obscure institution the average person forgets exists until election night, the Electoral College sure has been getting a great deal of airtime. After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s declaration that the Electoral College is a racist scam, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg calling for its abolition, and the recent court decision declaring that states have no authority to bind their electors to vote a certain way, the Electoral College certainly is enjoying a great deal of limelight. Unfortunately, this attention is largely focused on seeking this very important institution’s destruction.
Attempts to abolish the Electoral College are nothing new. They’re part of a long tradition of seeking to make the U.S. function closer to a centralized direct democracy. It’s the school of thought that was responsible for the 17th Amendment establishing the direct election of senators.
Those in favor of a more directly-democratic system see the EC as an affront to justice and equality. They lament that there’s no requirement that the president be chosen by voting at all. States are free to choose their electors in whatever manner “thereof may direct.”
Additionally, the number of electors chosen must equal the state’s representatives in Congress. And while the House of Representatives determines representation based on population, every state is equally represented in the Senate, leading to some blatant inequalities when it comes to the number of electors per capita. Someone voting for president in Wyoming, where there’s an elector allotted for roughly every 192,000 people, supposedly has more of a say than someone in California, where there is an elector for around every 718,000 people. And as the last election demonstrated, it’s not necessary to win the national popular vote to become president.
Not only are citizens not actually guaranteed the right to vote for the electors, but, too, once the electors are chosen, they’re free to vote for whomever they wish. While so-called faithless electors haven’t really rocked the boat in a way that’s electorally-meaningful in the past 200 years, the very possibility shrieks of injustice to those who champion equality and more direct democracy.
Essentially, radical egalitarian democrats want as few filters as possible between the individual will and its realization in politics. From this point of view, the Electoral College, the Senate, and even states don’t make much sense, as they impede this unadulterated will. While this view is heavily focused on an individual’s will being expressed, it fails to understand that individuals are inherently weak, especially when it comes to politics.
But this weakness has historically been improved, because humans have always formed what the mid-century sociologist Robert Nisbet called “mediating institutions.” Groups such as family, community, and church act as mediators between individuals and the rest of society and offer more protection than would be available to a solitary atomized individual.
While our states aren’t as natural as the family, they serve a similar purpose in defending their citizens from abuse and protecting their interests. This was the logic behind the establishment of our decentralized federalist system of government, where seats of power are balanced against each other in an attempt to limit potential abuses of power.
If states are important (as a “mediating institution” of sorts) for protecting their citizens from abuse by the central government, then the Electoral College is vital to ensure that every state maintains some relevance and the ability to influence the federal government. When necessary, the Electoral College might even serve as a useful tool the states could use to rein in the federal government by directly appointing electors to ensure the president is answerable to them and doesn’t ignore their interests. If presidential candidates were forced to kowtow to state governments, rather than trying to bribe the shortsighted masses, we’d see a very different incentive structure driving the national debate in which decentralization would be sure to follow.
It’s understandable why some people think eliminating institutions like the Electoral College will result in more freedom and direct control for the average person. But further centralizing our political system by eliminating federalist institutions like the Electoral College will inevitably lead to a more powerful federal government and leave individuals with fewer options if that power is abused.