The most popular argument against the Electoral College is that it violates the fundamental principle underlying democratic society: political equality, or, commonly phrased as “one person, one vote.”
Indeed, because all states are assigned at least three electors regardless of their population size, the Electoral College gives small states a disproportionate number of electors per capita. As a result, a person who receives the largest number of votes does not necessarily win the election, as was the case in the presidential contests of 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.
In the wake of the 2020 election, there have been renewed calls to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national popular vote. The Washington Post editorial board, for example, writes, “The Electoral College, whatever virtues it may have had for the Founding Fathers, is no longer tenable for American democracy.”
The logic underlying this argument is the following: the actions of the president, and the federal government, directly affect millions of people, and thus citizens, not states, should choose the president.
Why does a voter in Wyoming have four times as much say over who is to lead the country in the next four years than the resident of California, if all men are created equal? Furthermore, critics usually argue the Electoral College leads candidates to focus their efforts on a few swing states — like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — while neglecting other regions of the country.
Yet, while it is true that in the current system presidential candidates don’t spend their energy and focus on all states equally, in a system with the popular vote, the “tyranny of the minority” would be even worse. Indeed, could well be enough to win the popular vote of highly dense, urbanized cities in states like California and New York while losing in elections in a vast majority of the country.
But as Dan McLaughlin writes in National Review, “The Electoral College, however, dilutes the influence of “hyperpartisan enclaves that are out of step with the nation,” be it California today or the American South in the 19th century. Thus, thanks to the Electoral College, candidates have to appeal to a geographically broader base that’s more politically, socially, and economically diverse.
Federalism and the Electoral College
The Electoral College is therefore a mainstay of America’s federalist system of governance, centered on the protection of certain rights reserved to the states as entities and resting on the principle of a division of power. America is a union of states, and the president is, in essence, the officer of the states rather than of the American people.
Likewise, an argument can be made that the states, and not the people per se, are sovereign. After all, the U.S. Constitution was ratified not by the American people, but by delegations from 13 states. In an electoral system with a national popular vote, the executive branch would represent the interests of a few highly populated states, disregarding the interests of all other states, shredding the federalism the Founders thought it so necessary to bestow upon the American republic.
The debate about whether the Electoral College should be abolished, however, misses a larger and more important. When the United States was founded, it was not assumed America would ever possess such a massive federal government combined with an imperial presidency, an anemic and gridlocked Congress, and eroded state rights, as we have today.
As George Will points out in a recent column in The Washington Post, “Congress is not even certain of the components of, and hence cannot meaningfully control, the agglomeration of bureaucracies it has created.” Indeed, only three executive agencies existed in 1789. By contrast, today, as the Modernization of Congress report puts it, “While there is no official inventory of federal agencies, one recent count puts the current total at 278 distinct agencies.”
If America were a truly centralized country where the federal government had vastly more power than it already does, elections by popular vote would make sense since the actions of the president would directly affect citizens. This is not the case, however, for a nation such as ours.
In a decentralized federal republic, the fact that states, and not people, elect the president does not necessarily violate the principle of equal representation because national elections do not have as much impact on the lives of the citizens as do those on local and state levels. Indeed, this is why elections on state and local levels are determined by popular vote, since, in decentralized society, they matter more for the majority of ordinary citizens than the federal ones.
Why We Must Decentralize
Unfortunately, a worrying trend is that in today’s America, as we move away from our federalist system and power becomes increasingly concentrated in Washington, D.C. and the executive branch, in particular, presidential elections matter far too much to many people. For the Electoral College to reflect the underlying social dynamics of the nation when it was established, we need more decentralization and localism, when states, and not citizens, elect the president of the union.
Through every constitutional means available, the American people must quickly begin a course to limit executive power, end the imperial presidency, reduce the size of the federal government, give more power to the states, and decentralize decision-making away from Washington. Of course, some tasks can only be performed by the president and the federal government, such as representing the states on the world stage. Otherwise, in spheres that can be managed by states and municipalities, the central government should not be involved.
The Electoral College was created for a decentralized country with a federal system. Modern America, unfortunately, has been steadily moving away from federalism as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Abolishing the Electoral College is next to impossible in the current political climate since that would require a constitutional amendment, and initiatives like National Popular Vote Interstate Compact are probably unconstitutional.
We Need More Federalism, Not Less
More federalism, therefore, is the only way to address this growing disconnect between the Electoral College and the type of a country it was crafted for. As James Madison notes in Federalist No. 10:
By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.
Decentralization and dispersal of power underlie the U.S. Constitution, striking a balance between the rights of states and the federal government, with the Electoral College serving as one of such compromises.
Abolishing the Electoral College would expand the power of the federal government — especially in administering elections — potentially turning states into mere administrative departments of the Washington bureaucracy. Since one of the prime rationales for the existence of the Electoral College is state representation, if the Electoral College is abolished in the name of direct democracy, consistency would require that the Senate, and thus states’ representation, are removed too, with disastrous consequences.
To make the Electoral College relevant again, we need to decentralize federal power and localize the process of decision-making, making politicians closer and thus more accountable to their constituents. Instead of changing the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College, it would be much easier — and much better for the health of our republic — to reduce the size of the federal government so that the Electoral College operates in the environment it was designed for.