Our Crazy Electoral College

People are still mad about that Electoral College thing. And okay, I do get it: if it hadn’t been for that antiquated and arguably unfair system, which was created as an incentive to get smaller and less-populous agricultural states to ratify the Constitution, Donald Trump would not now be our president. Because, despite what he tells himself, he did NOT actually win the popular vote.

It is true that our system of indirect voting known as the Electoral College gives more weight to voters in smaller states than to voters in states like California and New York. It is true that because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy campaigning in states like Ohio and Florida, and virtually ignore other states.

But here’s why you don’t hear me arguing, like so many others, that we need to abolish the Electoral College: One of the things that has made our country the great nation that it is (or maybe I should say “the great nation that it was,” but I’m not willing to give in on that just yet) is the fact that it has always been based on the concept of  majority rules with minority rights. Decisions are made by the majority, but always with respect for the minority. That’s why we have our complex system of checks and balances. That’s why one of our houses of congress, the Senate, is made up of an equal number of Senators from each state. (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: that number is 2.) That is the rationale behind the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, for example, with its protection for freedoms of speech and religion, is designed to protect citizens from the tyranny of the majority. If the Founding Fathers had wanted all decisions simply to be decided by “majority rules,” they wouldn’t have included things like guarantees for freedom of religion. We simply would take a vote every few years to determine what our national religion should be. Are we a Catholic nation this year, or a Protestant one? Southern Baptist or Methodist? Or maybe this year is the year we decide to do away with religion altogether. Let’s vote. Deciding complicated issues would be done the same way we picked our American Idol. People vote. The majority wins. If you don’t like the result, too bad. Majority Rules.

All the other important decisions would be made that way too.

But that’s not the way we do things here. And I, for one, am glad. Because, while I may have sided with the majority of voters in this presidential election, my beliefs don’t always coincide with the majority of Americans, and I don’t want all of our issues decided by the majority. I am a religious minority, for example. And there are lots of other things where I don’t seem to agree with the majority of America. I don’t like Thai food. I don’t like superhero movies. I don’t like the color green. Fortunately I live in a country where my minority views are tolerated.

So imagine that you were (or perhaps you are) a conservative person in a small town in a small state in the middle of the country and all of the decisions were made based on the opinions of those liberal folks out there on the edges–California, New York, New Jersey. The person you supported for President would likely never win. You would feel that your views didn’t matter and that the country you lived in didn’t reflect your beliefs or values at all. You probably wouldn’t be a very happy citizen.

The Electoral College is one of the ways that we prevent this from happening. It gives people in less populous states a say in their government. It makes candidates pay attention to the needs of people in less populous states. And that, in theory, makes for a more peaceful nation. It’s not a perfect solution. There are no perfect solutions to complicated problems, and being a part of a democracy is a pretty complicated situation. The business of governing a large and diverse nation such as ours is full of messy compromises. But remember, most of the time the results of the Electoral College do coincide with the popular vote. In this case, it didn’t. (Nor did it in 2000.) That’s a chance that I’m willing to take.

Of course, just because the system is arcane and sometimes seems unfair, it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone running for high office. Candidates know the rules going in, and they have extremely sophisticated strategies and ground operations for making sure that the electoral system is taken into account. From the perspective of winning the election, from the perspective of winning the electoral vote, Trump ran a better campaign. And that’s a shame. But it isn’t a reason for us to abolish the system altogether, or to forget the checks and balances that are wisely a part of our system.

 

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