Electoral College Abolition | Part 1
Addressing Five Common Arguments Against Abolishing the Electoral College
I am an unapologetic electoral college abolitionist, and I firmly believe that the United States would be better off without it, that it’s a relic of a bygone era of a unique blend of anti-democratic sentiment and an antiquated form of federalism, and that it’s not only a political failure but a moral one as well. And I want to tell you why in three parts.
I want to start off by addressing some common arguments that are given in response to calls for abolishing the electoral college (that’s what this piece will do). I will do my best to address those arguments and defend my abolitionist position. Second, in a future piece I will lay out the case against the electoral college and for the popular vote. Finally, I will conclude by examining some of the institutional structures that would need to be (or could be) erected in place of our current national electoral system.
The arguments against ending the electoral college that I will address in this piece are:
- “Without the electoral college, we would be a democracy, not a republic.”
- “Without the electoral college, the Coastal Areas would dominate the rest of the country.”
- “The electoral college is a bulwark against unqualified/dangerous demagogues and populists.”
- “Eliminating the electoral college would result in a regional multi-party system that would result in one party often dominating presidential elections.”
- “Eliminating the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, which is impossible.”
Of course, that’s not an exhaustive list of all the arguments that exist against electoral college abolition, but I think these five cover the majority of such arguments, and certainly the majority of such arguments that I have personally seen and heard.
“Without the electoral college, we would be a democracy, not a republic.”
This is just flat-out untrue. There’s no nuance to this, it’s just completely incorrect at every level. First off, the United States is (and has been since its founding) a democracy and a republic. A country cannot be a republic without being a democracy, just like you cannot have a non-rectangular square, a non-mammal monkey, or a non-sandwich PB&J. Republics are just a type of democracy, so saying that we need to maintain the electoral college in order to remain a republic and not become a democracy does nothing but betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the definition of “republic”.
Speaking of the definition of “republic”, let’s look at that.
- According to Brittanica, a republic is a “form of government in which a state is ruled by representatives of the citizen body.”
- According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a republic is “a country without a king or queen, usually governed by elected representatives of the people and a president.”
- And for good measure, Lexico defines a republic as A state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives.”
If anyone can tell me how eliminating the electoral college would suddenly make the United States not a republic anymore, they would be the first to do so. A republican form of government hinges on the existence and empowerment of the people via representatives. In the United States, these representatives are mainly (at least, in theory) in legislatures and to a lesser extent in the executive branches, and to almost no extent in the Judiciary. In no way would abandoning the electoral college change the existence or function of elected representatives expressing the will of the people, i.e, the actual cornerstone of republicanism.
Not only does the claim that eliminating the electoral college would be a death blow to republicanism completely ignore the definitional and functional meaning of the concept, but it also ignores the validity and existence of every republic in the world (many of which are arguably more republican and more democratic) that functions without the existence of an electoral college equivalent. France, Uruguay, Germany, Mexico, Ireland, Finland, South Africa, Mongolia, Indonesia, Malta, Italy, etc. — all of these are republican states that do not have an electoral college equivalent. The claim that the preservation of republicanism in the United States requires the electoral college reeks of narrow-mindedness, smacks of American exceptionalism, and betrays the claimers’ dismissal of anything non-“American”.
“Without the electoral college, the coastal areas would dominate the rest of the country.”
This is another common claim that rests on shaky and assumptive ground (while holding more validity than the previous claim). One of the most common forms this claim takes is that of “Do you want New York and California to determine the president for the rest of the country?” and that is such a ridiculous assertion that it can be easily refuted with about ten seconds of simple math. California has a population of 39.51 million. New York has a population of 19.45 million. If you add those two together, it’s a combined population of 58.96 million.
Even if every citizen of those states voted exactly the same in presidential elections, the inconvenient fact that the United States has a population of 328.2 million people. If someone can show me how it makes any mathematical sense to believe that 58.96 is somehow a majority of 328.2, they would be the first.
Mathematical impossibilities aside, this claim that blue states would dominate red ones without the electoral college faces two other massive issues.
- It’s absurd to think that everyone in those areas votes exactly the same. Obviously they don’t. Just like there are Wyoming Democrats, there are New York Republicans. Just like there are Alabama Democrats, there are California Republicans. Blue states are not homogenous voting blocs. Liberals have majorities, yes — but there is often a large and significant oppositional minority.
- The idea that without the electoral college, blue states would dominate red states is absurd because without the electoral college, there would not be blue states and red states. Aside from a few hubs of blue and red smattered about here and there, the country would largely be a vast sea of purple shades. Presidential election politics would cease to exist at the state level, and it would be hard for either red or blue states to dominate the other if the institution that enables and perpetuates the existence of red and blue states no longer existed.
It’s true that the liberal and progressive hubs are often densely populated. It’s true that an overwhelming majority of the United States population (around 80%) live in urban areas. It’s also just as true that no presidential candidate — with or without the electoral college — would ever be able to win an election without broad appeal beyond urban, liberal centers. Presidential candidates must appeal to suburban and rural voters as well — they simply cannot win without slight majorities of the former and at least decent minorities of the latter. Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia is a great example fo this. Yes, Biden drove massive turnout in urban areas (especially Atlanta), but he wouldn’t have won the state without winning the suburban areas and by eating into Trump’s margin of victory in many exurban and rural counties.
“The electoral college is a bulwark against unqualified/dangerous demagogues and populists.”
This is another claim that (while maybe the strongest yet) I don’t believe holds up well under scrutiny. Case in point is the historical fact of Donald Trump’s presidency. If ever the country needed the electoral college to protect it from an authoritarian populist demagogue, it was in the 2016 election. But rather than stop Trump’s ascent to power, the electoral college empowered him and gave him the presidency. Without the electoral college, Trump would have handily lost the 2016 election and would never have even been considered as a serious contender in the 2020 election. But because of this institution, he was the victor in 2016 and a real threat in 2020.
The electoral college may have been implemented as a bulwark against demagoguery, populism, and authoritarianism (though I have doubts about the purity of the founder’s motives), but it has been hijacked by a minoritiarian party that has made those three things the tenets of it’s platform. The electoral college has been so thoroughly perverted by the Republican Party that it is now the only pathway to power for many (not all, but many) of those that it was allegedly designed to put a stop too.
A candidate like Donald Trump (and likely someone like Bernie Sanders on the left) will almost never be able to win either a majority or plurality of the popular vote. That would be extremely difficult for them. What would be much simpler though, is playing the electoral college math against the electoral college’s purpose to focus on just a few states and win an election.
“Eliminating the electoral college would result in a regional multi-party system that would result in one party often dominating presidential elections.”
First off, I fail to see how a multi-party system (even one that was regionally based) would be a bad thing. That seems to me like a significant improvement over the current de facto two-party system. And as far as I am concerned, neither liberals nor conservatives seem more or less likely than the other to further factionalize into regional parties. The average Republican in Utah is far different than a Republican in Mississippi, and both far different than a Republican in New Hampshire. Likewise, the average Democrat in Washington D.C. is fundamentally different than a Democrat in Portland, and both are fundamentally different than a Democrat in Illinois. If the elimination of the electoral college did result in the two-party system crumbling into a multi-party, regionalistic citizenry, I think it’s safe to say that this would affect those on the right and left equally.
Of course, if parties were regional, the effect of moneyed areas would potentially be exaggerated. Regional liberal parties would have the massive wealth of New York and the Californian coasts to leverage over other liberal parties in places like Colorado, the Rust Belt, and Deep South. Likewise, a Texas-based conservative party would have the opportunity to use oil money to dominate other conservative parties across the country. This possibility is certainly worth considering, but I’m not sure that the domination of poorer regional parties by wealthy ones should at all be viewed as inevitable. The past two presidential elections have made abundantly clear both the power and limits of vast amounts of political spending. Money can get the ball rolling, but ultimately no amount of money can make up for a lack of inspired (or at least motivated) voters.
Second off, one party would only be able to dominate elections if candidates were still able to win without an actual majority. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency with only 43% of the vote. Theoretically, someone could win the presidential election with even less than that — 40%, even 35%) — so long as they had plurality of the vote in the right states. Under this system of “most votes wins” (as opposed to “majority pick wins”), the elimination of the electoral college could easily allow an especially powerful regional party to dominate presidential elections with nothing even approaching a majority of the popular vote.
However, most serious advocates for eliminating the electoral college do not propose simply the scrapping of that system, but also the implementation of new one. Ranked-choice voting, “jungle-style” elections, and run-offs are all common proposals for replacements to the electoral college in order to assure that the winner of prudential elections was a true majority winner, and not merely an especially locally-popular Californian progressive or Southern reactionary.
“Eliminating the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, which is impossible.”
While technically true, this argument against electoral college abolition is too narrow and ignores the possibility of subverting the electoral college instead. Until the popular will and political capital exist to actually amend the constitution, nothing is stopping states from essentially ignoring and negating the electoral college.
This can be seen clearly in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), an agreement that Washington, D.C. and 15 states representing 196 electoral votes (36.4% of the electoral college) are currently members of. An additional 5 states representing 98 electoral votes (18.2% of the electoral college) are currently considering joining the compact. Essentially, the states that are a part of this compact have all agreed to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of what candidate wins their state. (The caveat is that none of the signed-on states have to act in accordance with the compact until states with a total equal to or greater than 270 electoral votes have joined.)
For now, the compact is somewhat easy to ignore — only 196 electoral votes are covered, so it is not functionally in effect anywhere yet. Furthermore, almost every state that is in the compact for now is a reliably blue state, meaning that if a Republican won the popular vote somehow, that nearly 196 reliably Democratic electoral votes would ironically go to them. The one exception to this rule as of now is Colorado. It’s true that Colorado is certainly trending bluer in recent elections, but I wouldn’t put this in the reliably blue column yet. It’s fairly easy to imagine an election scenario where a Republican had a real chance of winning the state (say a very progressive Democrat was running against a Dovish, socially liberal, young Republican).
As more states that are not solid-red/blue or even swing states sign on to the compact, the more potent of a threat to the functional existence of the electoral college it will be. Currently, Virginia (a state similar to Colorado — trending blue, but could be flipped), Texas (a red-state trending blue), Ohio (a swing-state trending red), and Pennsylvania (a genuine swing-state) are all considering whether to join the NPVIC. If even just some of them did, national campaigns would have to start campaigning to win the popular vote, rather than just a few electoral vote -rich swing states and the electoral college would be essentially irrelevant.
So yes, true abolition of the electoral college is practically impossible for now and the foreseeable future. But effectively subverting and neutering it is a very attainable goal, even in the current political climate.
Hopefully, if you are not in favor of electoral college abolition already, what I’ve written here will at least encourage you to reevaluate some of your defenses of that system. I look forward to continuing this series in the future when I lay out my case for abolishing the electoral college in favor of the national popular vote and when I examine just what exactly post-electoral college elections could look like.