For the fifth time in American history, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote has lost the election, reinvigorating calls to abolish the Electoral College. Recently, outgoing senator Barbara Boxer introduced a bill to that effect, calling the system “outdated” and “undemocratic.” Critics like Boxer, however, are mistaken. The Electoral College is more relevant today than when it was created, and abolishing it could have profound and unforeseen consequences for our democracy.
When the institution was created in 1787, the goal was to prevent the more populous Southern states from overpowering the less populous Northern states. According to the 1790 census, Virginia had the most free white males aged 16 or older (111,000), while Rhode Island had the fewest by about a factor of seven (16,000). Today, California’s voting-eligible population is 25 times greater than Wyoming’s. In fact, if the Electoral College were abandoned and a presidential candidate won every eligible vote in California, she could ignore the least populous 21 states and still have a lead. Our population is so unevenly distributed that the 10 million registered voters in New York City and Los Angeles County outnumber all of those in Pennsylvania by over a million and a half.
In the 18th century, the major issue was, of course, slavery, but the broader motivation was to balance the interests of areas with disparate economies, demographics, and political ideals. If these concerns were no longer based on geography, the Electoral College would be unnecessary, but that isn’t the case. As you’ve heard ad nauseam, this country is heavily polarized, and no more so than along the rural / urban divide.
The differences permeate all aspects of modern life. People in rural areas are twice as likely to own a gun, and, if they’re between 10 and 24, twice as likely to commit suicide. Those living in cities are more than three times as likely to say that religion is not that important to them and one third less likely to say that homosexuality is a sin. Rural Americans are poorer and sicker, on average, than their urban counterparts, though healthcare in less populated areas is more difficult and expensive to access. By 2017, almost a third of rural counties will have only one insurer (compared to a fifth of urban counties).
Perhaps the most salient difference, though, is with the economy, which 86 percent of voters rank as an extremely or very important election issue—more so than terrorism, wealth distribution, or race relations. Cities account for 80 percent of American GDP and tax revenue. During the latest economic recovery, the largest 100 metro areas recovered all of the jobs lost during the Great Recession and added nearly 6 million more, while the rest of the country combined added fewer than 300,000. The New York Times estimates that in Manhattan, where the average sale price of a home is $1.46 million, a middle class income is up to $235,000 a year.
What all of this means is that a Democrat in Hollywood is much more likely to share common ground with a Republican on Wall Street than a Democrat in rural Kentucky — a dynamic that would intensify were the Electoral College eliminated. The new presidential campaign trail would heavily feature New York, California, Texas, and Florida, which combined account for 58.5 million registered voters (Trump won with a little over 61 million). The other states would be, well, flown over, and the federal benefits they enjoy would likely disappear as well: subsidies for solar plants in Texas, not for Appalachian coal; infrastructure investment to boost tourism in Florida, not crop insurance for Iowa farms.
Liberals would gladly welcome policies like these (cities are, after all, overwhelmingly liberal), but they should temper their optimism about how progressive the new order would be. For example, candidates might strike a populist chord and promise lower tariffs for Japanese cars and laxer emission standards in order to appeal to California’s 22 million drivers. Alternatively — or, perhaps, simultaneously — they could court the influence of the urban elite, the kingmakers in the new political battlegrounds. Rather than supporting measures to help citizens at the poverty line, about half of whom vote, candidates might propose tax breaks for those who make more than $100,000, whose turnout is over 80 percent. With city-dwellers largely in agreement on social issues, class could become the new fault line.
Either way, eliminating the EC would fundamentally change American politics. But, would that shift be undemocratic? If these are the policies favored by most Americans, then is it an unfortunate but ultimately fair reality that rural areas would be left behind?
It’s tough to know what the majority in America wants because voter turnout hovers around 60 percent — another problem that, according to critics, abolishing the EC could solve. As they tell it, voters in highly partisan states stay home because their votes won’t affect the outcome in the EC. If that were truly the case, though, we’d expect turnout to be the highest in swing states. According to Nate Silver’s voter power index, which estimates the relative likelihood that an individual voter in a state could determine the Electoral College winner, New Mexicans were the most influential voters in this past election, more so than almost every solidly blue and solidly red state combined. New Mexico’s voter turnout was 54.8%, the twelfth worst in the nation.
And what about Florida, the infamous swing state that was bombarded with campaign visits, canvassers, and get-out-the-vote efforts? Turnout there was 65.1%, slightly worse than Massachusetts, which went for Hillary by 27 points. While the EC is an easy scapegoat for America’s low turnout, the data suggest that even when voters have disproportionate influence — far more than they would have without the EC — they still don’t show up. And if candidates stopped campaigning in large swaths of the U.S., it’s possible that turnout would actually decrease.
To address Senator Boxer’s second point, whether the Electoral College is undemocratic really depends on what kind of democracy you favor. While we sometimes use direct democracy to, say, elect a state legislature or decide a referendum, there are plenty of other instances where we trust representatives to do the work for us. The “one person, one vote” mantra so fiercely advocated by critics of the EC sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? Should we abolish the winner-take-all component of our elections and allocate representatives proportionally? Should we return to what we did before 1804 and crown the presidential candidate who received the second most votes as the vice president? Do we want a clear winner, or do we want to strive for the admittedly lofty — perhaps quixotic — goal of giving all Americans a somewhat equal share of representation?
The Electoral College is certainly not perfect. The number of electors isn’t consistently proportional to a state’s population, a discrepancy that penalizes larger states; the Senate already exists to amplify the power of less populous states, so perhaps it’s okay if they take a less prominent role in choosing the head of the executive branch; voters in certain places have unequal influence, and the campaign trail is condensed to a few key areas, though eliminating the EC would likely lead to the same distortions. What cannot be argued with a straight face, however, is that the Electoral College is irrelevant. If anything, the demographic, political, and economic divides among the electorate in this country are greater now than they were in 1787. Our political system can attempt to bridge those divides or exacerbate them. Either approach will disappoint and frustrate — but both will be democracy in action.