By William M. Daley
Now that Donald Trump has won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, there’s a growing cry to rethink, or even abolish, the electoral college. This would be a mistake.
Yes, the electoral college is a tempting target, especially for Democrats. Two of the past five presidential elections have seen Republicans claim the White House by winning the electoral vote while losing the popular vote.
I feel your pain. I was Al Gore’s campaign chairman in 2000, when he won a half -million more votes than George W. Bush but lost the presidency. Trump’s case is even more stark, as Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin will exceed 2 million.
But I urge my fellow Democrats to think hard before trying to undo the admittedly hard-to-explain electoral college. The cure might be worse than the disease.
While imperfect, the electoral college has generally served the republic well. It forces candidates to campaign in a variety of closely contested races, where political debate is typically robust. It often helps new presidents get started by magnifying their mandate. That happened with Barack Obama, who twice finished with under 53 percent of the popular vote but carried the electoral vote comfortably.
The electoral college also tends to bolster the two major parties, which, for all the criticisms, have helped produce long-term political stability that many nations can only envy. With nearly all states awarding their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, it’s difficult for a third-party candidate to contend seriously for the presidency. While a truly national third party wouldn’t necessarily be bad, smaller niche parties are ill-suited to our federalist system. This system already divides power between the states and the federal government, and uses checks and balances to temper the legislative, executive and judicial branches’ authority.
In Europe’s parliamentary governments, by contrast, it’s not unusual to see multiple parties split the national vote several ways, enabling a politician with limited support to head the government (provided he or she can assemble a ruling coalition with other minority parties). That arrangement won’t work in our system of built-in tensions and checks between the president and Congress. And yet, eliminating the electoral college could produce such an unworkable situation – not through small parties but wealthy individuals. Aside from the Democratic and Republican nominees, a handful of billionaires could run campaigns focused especially on, say, Texas and Florida, or California and New York. One of them could win the presidency with a narrow slice of the vote. With so small a plurality, and no major party’s support, this president would face fierce head winds.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg outlined this possibility when he decided against a presidential bid last March. “Even if I were to receive the most popular votes and the most electoral votes,” Bloomberg wrote, “victory would be highly unlikely, because most members of Congress would vote for their party’s nominee.”
But without the electoral college, the decision wouldn’t be tossed to Congress, and the billionaire would be president.
Constitutional scholars share this concern. “Without the electoral college, there would be no effective brake on the number of ‘viable’ presidential candidates,” Gettysburg College professor Allen Guelzo and Washington lawyer James Hulme wrote last month in The Post. “Abolish it, and it would not be difficult to imagine a scenario where, in a field of a dozen micro-candidates, the ‘winner’ only needs 10 percent of the vote.”
Already we’ve seen troubling ramifications of weakening our two major parties. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., demanded concessions to the left even though he was never truly a Democrat. And Republicans – whose nominating rules give party leaders even less influence than the Democrats’ do – have seen their party hijacked by Trump, a man of uncertain and ever-shifting ideologies often at odds with mainstream conservatism.
The electoral college is a curious institution, concocted by Founding Fathers struggling to balance the influence of big and small states. It’s not perfect. But until we have a clearly better replacement, let’s stick with it.
Special To The Washington Post · William M. Daley