Conflicted feelings on the Electoral College

December 18, 2016

I don’t think the Electoral College is a good way to select a leader. It magnifies the power of white voters, disenfranchises voters in non-swing states, and leaves open the possibility that a legitimate winner can be denied victory by a small group of unelected, unknown citizens—and before you give me the argument that the Electoral College ensures that the president has to win a variety of states, it really doesn’t. Just the eleven most populous states—California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey—are enough to cross the finish line, and as urbanization accelerates, that kind of result is increasingly likely. The Electoral College is a bad system that needs to be done away with.

And yet, I find myself hoping that the electors will bail us out of our current predicament. Donald Trump is a demagogue who gives every appearance of being an authoritarian, and I don’t want him anywhere near the halls of power. This leaves me in the uncomfortable position of hoping for an undemocratic outcome from an undemocratic institution to save our democracy.

Partially. I’m still unsure. This whole situation has left me deeply conflicted.

On the one hand, I remain steadfast in my belief that the electoral college is a crappy system that needs to be gotten rid of. On the other hand, I want to respect the fail-safes the Founding Fathers built into the Constitution, because they clearly had good reasons for many of them, see: what’s happening right the fuck now. Electing presidents by popular vote, just as we do with every other elected office, would seem to be a better system to me, and it would have solved the whole Trump problem, but what happens if we’re ever faced with a left-wing populist demagogue? If the voting lines stay as they are, we would be defenseless once someone like that got the Democratic nod.

Which, once again: Single Transferable Vote. It solves so much. You can argue that I prefer using the popular vote because I’ve twice seen the candidate I preferred lose due to the Electoral College, but with Single Transferable Vote, I have no idea how the voting lines will shake out. Hell, I might not even still be a reliable Democratic voter once we implement STV, not when there are more parties (and independent candidates) to choose from.

Plus, using STV solves both problems. First, because every vote is worth the same amount, there would be no areas where voters have disproportionate influence, i.e. no swing states. Disenfranchisement would lessen as most people find candidates and/or parties that actually like, instead of one they hate less. Primaries wouldn’t even be necessary anymore, since marginal candidates could campaign all the way to the end without repercussions on ideologically similar candidates. It would be more similar to the popular vote method—but with the important caveat that STV’s instant runoff gives the advantage to moderates, who are largely palatable to many voters, as opposed to fringe candidates, who have fewer (though more ardent) fans. That makes it harder for a demagogue to seize power, since they tend to make enemies.

If given the choice between leaving the system as it is today, with the Electoral College, and switching to a straight popular vote method, I would probably choose the latter, though you could argue that it would be for partisan reasons. I wouldn’t agree with that argument, but I can see where it’s coming from. Better than that, I think, is to switch fully to STV, and make the partisan issue moot as the existing party structure is totally scrambled.

I’d rather live in a country where the presidency is always won by center-left, center-right, or moderate politicians, and no one freaks out after each election because we’ll all know the person in the White House isn’t a yahoo, because we’ll all see the yahoos out there all the time, campaigning for their crazy candidates under their own banners, rather than slowly rotting the centrist parties from the inside. In this, at least, the radical left and radical right are useful—we need to see them for what they are, so reasonable people don’t let them anywhere near the nuclear codes. I think STV would help us do that, so we could put the un-democratic Electoral College nonsense.

EDIT: I should probably clarify my position on the electoral college with regards to Trump. If I had my perfect world from this point onward—clearly if I could have my perfect world from a month and a half ago, HRC would just win—the electors would ratify the election for Trump, with 5-10 Republican electors going rogue to make everyone super pissed off at the Electoral College. Then he’d get sworn in, and impeached in short order for violating the emoluments clause or one of the many other horrifying things he’s liable to do. (I of course hope he doesn’t do anything impeachable and is a great president, I just don’t believe it’ll happen.)

There’s definitely a part of me that hopes the electoral college votes against him, though, if only because it’d get the constitutional crisis we’re cruising for out of the way sooner rather than later. I’m not sure I’d act on that monkey brain feeling if given the choice, especially since there are definite downsides, but I’m not an elector, so I don’t have to square that circle. What I do know is that if the electoral college doesn’t vote against a literal demagogue, I don’t see a point in its existence.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


  1. Reply


    I think you are missing some good arguments as to what the electoral system does well and what the national popular vote would do poorly. I like STV at the state level, but it doesn’t address all of these issues and anything not at the state level is even more unbalanced.

    While there are better articles on this topic, I’ve chosen to link those from very left leaning publications to improve the odds that Democrats will read them and give them due thought.

  2. Reply

    John A

    I’m still not sold on disbanding the EC. My main issue with the EC as it is today is that nearly every state has removed autonomy from the EC. Instead every state has implemented laws which demand that each EC voter vote for who they pledged for, and I don’t think any state lets the electorate choose which EC candidates they actually want.

    From what I’ve read of the constitution and the Federalist papers, the founding fathers never wanted the president to be elected “By The People”. The president was to be elected by educated people who could make independent decisions, and those Electors would be chosen by each state at the states direction.

    Now the definition of “educated people” is obviously up for grabs, as I feel most politicians are not as smart as they think they are. But maybe that’s my centrist views just not liking their policies, or maybe it’s because I live in a state that is going through tons of government accountability reviews for corruption.

    I like the theory of the EC as spelled out in the Federalist papers. I like that it tries to give smaller states a voice. I don’t think STV will magically solve the smaller states concerns about being heard on the election. The middle states have almost always felt ignored.

    I think STV is great, and can be great for local elections and even for our federal representatives. I’m not sold on it being the happy-go-lucky, everybody-wins solution for our president. I still feel like our biggest issue is what’s represented here:

    Huge swaths of land that go Red, and small geographic area that go blue, but the population is inverse. You have the small population areas being fed policy by high population areas that are often very far away and disconnected from them.

    I’m in NY state, traditionally a “blue state” for the presiency, but again, most of the geographic state is red:

    This is possibly the fault of our mostly 2 party system, but even if we switched to STV tomorrow, I bet most voters would not change how they and I’m not even sure it would change those maps at all. You’ll still end up with 2 major candidates who get the most votes. Most voters will probably get tired of filling out bubble or checking boxes for people who they “know” will lose and be lazy and vote for who they think will win instead.

    Anyway, I feel like I meandered a lot here. Back on topic of the EC. What I’d like to see is:
    * For States to repeal all the laws they’ve placed on the EC members.
    * For the EC members to be chosen directly, possibly by STV
    * For EC members to vote for who they think will be the best candidate.

    All my electors are currently pledged for HRC, so I don’t see how any of these changes would affect me locally this election cycle. But I dislike how the EC are basically written out of the Constitution by how the states have chosen and limited what their electors can do.

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