There is growing discussion in America about jettisoning the Electoral College (EC) in favor of National Popular Vote (NPV) for presidential elections. This would replace the requirement to win at least 270 votes by electors in the Electoral College with the requirement to win a plurality of individual votes across the entire country, irrespective of state results.
This essay explains why the concept of NPV runs counter to the very structure of the American political system and its Constitution. It also explains why the Electoral College was an ingenious innovation by America’s founders.
There are four important factors to consider in this discussion.
First, the Unites States of America has a federal government, not a national government. Our Federal Government was created by the separate states, not to replace all state authority with a consolidated national authority, but with limited authority to act only in those few instances when state authority alone is not sufficient to further the interests of the people. Some examples of the Federal Government’s limited authority include waging war and establishing treaties with foreign countries and facilitating interstate standards and commerce. This federalist approach was based on the Principle of Subsidiarity, which says that political power should be kept as close as possible to sovereign citizens. The Founders wanted citizens and their states to control nearly all political power, and the Federal Government to control very little.
Second, the United States of America is a Constitutional Republic, not a pure democracy. The Founders wanted desperately to avoid the Tyranny of the Majority. Their reasoning was that each person is a sovereign individual with certain inalienable rights. The purpose of the Constitution is to protect these inalienable rights from being voted away by self-serving majorities or from being trampled by a powerful central government. All the intricately structured checks and balances in the Constitution, including the Electoral College, were implemented to prevent the inalienable rights of individuals and the sovereignty of individual states from being overrun by a majoritarian national government. As Benjamin Franklin put it, pure democracy is just two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner.
Third, the Federal Government is rapidly growing in power and scope. Why is this important in a discussion about the Electoral College? Despite the cleverly designed checks and balances in the Constitution, the Federal Government has gradually usurped power from the people and from the states over the decades. The reasons for this are worthy of a separate essay, but the salient point here is that the growing pressure for National Popular Vote is fueled by the realization that enormous power has shifted from the people and from the states to the Federal Government, so therefore all the factions in America are now desperate to control the federal regulatory machinery and its taxed and printed riches. In other words, there are now massive incentives for the Tyranny of the Majority to rear its ugly head. NPV is just throwing gasoline on an already raging inferno of Federal Government expansion.
Fourth, each of the fifty states have unique issues, cultures, priorities, demographics, and geographies. Some states are small, some are large. Some are rural, some are urban. Some have temperate climates, some have harsh. Some are agricultural, some are industrial. There are hundreds of such factors that distinguish one state from another. This diversity makes the imposition of national mandates and programs problematic. Cookie-cutter solutions legislated from Washington are unlikely to be desired by the people of every state and will almost always work to the advantage of some states and the disadvantage of others. Therefore, for the people of America to be truly represented, it is important to prevent the Federal Government from usurping the political power of each state.
The above considerations were why the Founders built the Electoral College into the Constitution. Many of the original states were reluctant to embrace the creation of a federal government, especially just after fighting a revolutionary war to secede from the powerful British monarchy. Each of the original states needed constitutional assurance that their interests would not be usurped by an unaccountable and distant centralized government. The Electoral College eased their concerns because it reinforces the principle that states are sovereign entities responsible for the well-being of their sovereign citizens. The EC helps protect states from self-serving and overly powerful national majorities that may be hostile to their unique interests.
The Electoral College not only gives each state a strong voice in the election of the President, but the EC also increases the likelihood that any candidates running for the office will have to moderate their policy positions and embrace coalitions to take into consideration a wider range of interests across the country. On the other hand, if the President was elected by National Popular Vote, most of the campaign energies of the candidates would be focused on the major population centers. In today’s America, 50% of the population lives in less than 1% of the territory. The other 50% lives in the remaining 99%. NPV, combined with today’s inordinately powerful central government, would lead to a situation where a cabal of large cities could determine all national policies and regulations in America. The voters in most of the states would be rendered irrelevant and likely oppressed.
The Constitution mandates that the President and Vice-President will be chosen by 538 electors in an Electoral College. These electors are selected by 51 separate and distinct elections (the states plus Washington DC) across the country. This is an elegant check and balance designed by the Founders to prevent the Tyranny of the Majority from overwhelming state and individual sovereignty. It is also an elegant check and balance against voter fraud, wherein a handful of cities in a handful of states could potentially orchestrate national elections. Once a majority gains control in a purely majoritarian system, it can manipulate the machinery of government to maintain its control forever, irrespective of the rights and concerns of the minority.
The Electoral College is just one of many elegant anti-majoritarian elements of the Constitution, including two senators for each state, three competing branches of government, two competing chambers of Congress, the veto power of the Presidency, approval needed by 75% of the states to amend the Constitution, and the power of the Supreme Court to ensure that our inalienable rights do not get violated by majoritarian passions.
National Popular Vote is simply a majoritarian passion. It would accelerate a long and unfortunate evolution in America toward a powerful centralized government that runs contrary to our Constitution and to the founding principles of our country. NPV is a tool desired by authoritarian elites who wish to rule using the cudgel of sheer numbers rather than to acquiesce to the rule of law that protects inalienable individual rights as ordained by our Constitution.
If you want to continue the erosion of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, NPV is your solution. Otherwise, embrace the constitutional elegance of the Electoral College. The choice should be clear to any rational person who values freedom.