Democracy and the Electoral College

Photo by Harold Mendoza on Unsplash

I’ve seen many people over the years argue that the US is not a democracy, and so the electoral college doesn’t really take anything away from voters. At best, it is an oversimplification to say we aren’t a democracy. A direct democracy, no. But we are a democratic republic, which is most certainly a type of democracy.

In a direct democracy, the electorate actually the government. They vote on legislation themselves, rather than having representatives legislate on their behalf. Think about everything that happens just legislatively in a country this size and broken up into sovereign states. Could you imagine how onerous it would be for us to vote on all local, state, and federal legislation in order for anything to get done?

In a democratic republic, the people instead elect representatives to legislate on their behalf. Most modern definitions of the term ‘democracy’ include this form. In the US, the legislative branch is composed of 2 houses. The House of Representatives, which is apportioned according to the population in each state tabulated by a periodic census, and the Senate, in which each state is represented equally by 2 senators. Legislation must be approved by both chambers before going to the executive branch (i.e. the president) for final approval.

While we as voters don’t legislate for ourselves, we do elect the people who legislate on our behalf. For the legislative branch, there are no convoluted proxies for direct votes, no winning-side-take-all-seats systems. One vote is one vote, and the winners of the most votes in a district (for the House) and the state (for the Senate) go off to (supposedly) represent our interests so we can go about our daily lives.

With the legislative branch, voters get to directly choose their representation, and if you’re in the minority in your district/state? Hey, better luck next election! That’s how democracy works, right? But with the executive, we have the antiquated and broken electoral college. With this system, it is possible for the person who did not get the majority vote to represent the whole country in the executive.

There are various arguments for the electoral college, though I’ve yet to hear one that justifies it. I'll keep an open mind, but it seems illogical on its face.

That’s an invitation to disagree with me.

One of the main arguments in favor of it is that it prevents highly populous states from steamrolling less populous states in choosing the president. It seems incongruous to argue that in order to make sure the majority doesn’t force their will on the minority we need a system that allows the minority to force their will on the majority. Even so, if we’re talking about states here, how much will is really being imposed? State sovereignty is guaranteed in the 10th amendment. Provided states are not legislating away their citizens’ constitutionally protected rights, they have the ability to legislate whatever their citizens elect them to.

Aside from state sovereignty, states are all equally represented in the Senate, and legislation must pass through houses of congress in order to make it to the executive. And then the president only has the power to veto that legislation. Even then, Congress has a mechanism to override the president's veto. It’s difficult, but it is possible.

I want to make clear here that I’m not suggesting that people in less populous states — or anywhere else — shouldn’t care about who is elected president. It definitely has consequences beyond legislation — Supreme Court, anyone? Rather, I’m pushing back against the assertion that people in less populous states would live under the ‘tyranny of the majority’ without the electoral college. If federal legislation passes, it had to make it through your representatives in the House and Senate to ever sit on the president’s desk. And while there may be times when congressional math isn’t on the side of the less populous states, a supermajority coalition in both houses that is always in agreement with the president is exceedingly rare.

But with the winner-take-all system of the electoral college, people living in states where they disagree with the majority in that state — but for very few exceptions — have their votes forcefully converted. This doesn’t just mean a misplaced New Yorker living in Florida gets their vote erased. It means a misplaced Oklahoman living in California gets their vote erased as well. Each of these voters might as well have never cast a ballot for president.

Since states are able to elect both their proportional and equally distributed legislative representation, unfettered by complicated rituals risking faithless electors and mass disenfranchisement, why doesn’t the country as a whole get the same option with their executive representation? If the executive branch acts on behalf of every American — not for a specific collection of states — shouldn’t every American’s vote carry the same weight?

Writing when I can catch my breath. Forever chasing that breath. Every year stealing some velocity. Endurance is my strategy.

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