There’s been a lot of hot air pumped out over the Electoral College recently. Democrats running for President say it’s undemocratic and unfair, capable of giving the constitutionally required majority of its vote for president to one candidate even as another may win the constitutionally meaningless popular vote, as happened in 2000 and even more dramatically in 2016. Therefore, it must be abolished and the president should be elected by direct popular vote.
Republicans, however, say we must keep the Electoral College as is: It protects us from “the tyranny of the majority” and requires the winning presidential candidate to put together a broad coalition of states if he (or she) wants to go on to the White House. To abolish it would actually let coastal elites in New York and California elect the president, while ignoring the wishes of America’s vast heartland (aka Flyover Country).
Each argument has some truth on its side. But neither argument is especially relevant to the overall, underlying truth of the matter: The Electoral College, whatever its defects, will not be abolished or significantly changed, because too many have a vested interest in keeping it as is.
And who are those who will oppose abolition of the Electoral College? Most obviously, the small states. After all, the Electoral College was created to give America’s smaller states a bigger role in selecting the president than their populations might otherwise entitle them to. Especially benefitted were the slave states, whose populations of white men–the only category of person allowed to vote before the Civil War—were smaller and growing in number more slowly than that of northerners in free states.
The Constitution gives each state an electoral vote based on the number of senators and representatives it sends to Congress. Each state gets 2 senators, no matter how large it is, and at least one representative, no matter how small it is, although it gets more representatives if it has a larger population. But the law sets a limit on the maximum size of the House of Representatives—435—hence limits the potential size of the larger states’ delegations to the House. Since the District of Columbia also gets 3 electoral votes, the total size of the Electoral College is 538 (100+435+3), and to win the presidency one must win a majority of the electoral vote, or 270.
Thus, Wyoming, America’s smallest state, has a population of about 580,000 as of 2018, which is 0.23% of America’s population. But it has two senators, one representative, and an electoral vote of 3, which is 0.56% of the electoral vote.
At the other extreme, California, America’s largest state, has a population of about 39.6 million—roughly 68 times the size of Wyoming’s, and about 12% of the population of the United States. But it has 2 senators, 53 representatives, and therefore 55 electoral votes—only 18 times as many as Wyoming has, and only about 10% of the total electoral vote.
Moreover, to abolish the Electoral College requires amending the national Constitution, which in turn requires the ultimate approval of 38 states. In other words, 13 states can block a proposed amendment passed by Congress. The smallest 13 states have less than 5% of the national population, but a total of 46, or 8.6%, of the electoral votes. It’s unrealistic to expect them to vote themselves less power in electing the president, which is what they would be doing by supporting the abolition of the Electoral College.
And whatever efforts are made to preserve the Electoral College will be supported and reinforced by the Republican Party for a very simple reason having nothing whatever to do with coalition building and fears of majoritarian tyranny: Smaller states today tend to be more Republican. For example, the average population per state of the states that Hillary Clinton carried, along with the District of Columbia, was about 7.5 million, while the average population per state of those Donald Trump carried was about 5.7 million.
In summary, Democrats want to abolish the Electoral College, and Republicans want to keep it because the Electoral College currently favors the Republicans. And it’s safe to say that were the Democrats more benefited by the Electoral College and the Republicans more hurt, the Republicans would fight to eliminate it while the Democrats would fight to keep it. So if you choose to follow the current fight over the Electoral College, you need not pay too much attention to the highfalutin arguments offered by each side. They’re so much hot air. Each side simply wants electoral rules that will increase its respective chances of winning. That’s all. And the advocates of change, whoever they may be, will lose out in the end, because the small states won’t let them win.
But are there other ways to try to guarantee that the winner of the popular vote also win’s the electoral vote? What about the proposed National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a plan, which if implemented, would automatically award a majority of the electoral vote—and hence the presidency itself—to the winner of the popular vote, no matter how each state voted? We’ll explain why that probably won’t work in a future column.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.