After the election, emotions are still raw for many and energies have channeled into fever-pitched cries to “FIX THIS!” I agree that some sober review of our politics is called for. We need to re-engage in an earnest battle of ideas, think critically about why Congress is so polarized, and hold each other to higher, more respectful, and more open standards when it comes to discourse. And that’s just at a minimum.
Many have turned their angst to the Electoral College. To be sure, the Electoral College is peculiar, can be confusing, and is one of the last remnants of our nation’s original system of elections. There are good arguments that the Electoral College was intended to be something entirely different than what it is today (not to mention, a compromise over slavery) and that we should abandon it. But to do so, aside from being a fool’s errand given the high hurdles for amending the constitution, would be a hasty and mistaken choice.
To start, many of the assumptions we might have about a pure popular vote election, while plausible, are highly speculative given that comparisons are difficult. Campaigns would be run very differently without the Electoral College, and not necessarily in a way that is better. For one, fringe candidates would cause even more frustration (or more benefit, depending on which way you look at it). But more significantly, campaigning in a nation as big as ours is difficult (and expensive) as is, without having candidates canvass the entire country. New strategies would emerge in a popular vote electoral system that would be unlikely to mirror reformers’ goal of spreading candidates’ attention out. Rather, by necessity, campaigns would likely focus their energies on areas where they could maximize their turnouts—for Democrats that would be cities, for Republicans it would be the South and Texas. Yes, we would eliminate the de facto inequality of votes, but the gulfs in the country that we are starting to wake up to would only grow wider.
That said, let’s think about swing states for a moment. Of course it’s undesirable that a vote cast in downtown Charlotte is worth a whole lot more than one just a dozen miles away in South Carolina. On the other hand, these states have emerged as “battleground states” in no small part because they look like micro-Americas. Our home of North Carolina fairly resembles the whole of the United States demographically, economically, and even geographically. Sure enough, the same is true of states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada that traditionally see a lot of presidential campaigning. So while complaints about candidates spending inordinate amounts of time in these states have merit, it actually has (or at least should have) the effect of forcing candidates to address concerns of Americans from many walks of life.
And then there’s the important takeaway of this election: the map changes! It’s difficult to see the big picture from one point in a long timeline of elections, but today’s deep blue or red may be tomorrow’s purple. A big part of why this election’s outcome was so jarring was because we had been assured all cycle that Democrats had a built in electoral college advantage (and they definitely did appear to). But this election proved though that “Blue Walls” can be more like street curbs in the right circumstances. And for that matter, it’s already looking like Georgia and Texas could soon wreak havoc in conservatives’ electoral math.
Finally, let’s not forget that we are the United States of America. Federalism is a cornerstone of our system of government, and the Electoral College is an integral part of that cornerstone. To be candid, the Electoral College means that “We the People” don’t so much elect our president as much as the states do. Reasonable minds can disagree about whether that is, as a matter of principle, a good thing or a bad thing; but if we call the Electoral College a relic, we’re rejecting a core principle of our Constitution and it becomes unclear what should be next to go in the dustbin of history.
I mentioned before that the Electoral College was one consequence of unsavory compromises that were made by our Framers. Compromises are messy (not unlike our democracy, as we’ve been reminded of time and again in the past week). The Electoral College has its flaws and it is undoubtedly concerning that two of the last five elections have been won by a candidate who did not win the popular vote. But what we need right now is some critical thought about what we can all do to make our democracy work better, not a scapegoat.
Michael Rosengart is a second-year student in Duke Law. He majored in political science as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis and spent two years working in politics in Washington, D.C.
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