Opinion: The Popular Vote is Not a New Idea, But it is a Dangerous One
Any time someone loses an election, but wins the oh-so-holy popular vote, it seems that a giant spotlight falls on the Electoral College. The activists and partisan water-bearers (from whatever losing party) ascend to their high horses and once again, it’s time to talk about why we use this “antiquated institution” when a direct popular vote is “far more democratic and fair”.
On the surface, the tension seems ridiculous, considering that only five times in U.S. history have previous elected presidents won an election without a majority vote, but the pressure on this issue has only built because it’s happened twice recently with the last two Republican winners (2000 – George W. Bush & 2016 – Donald J. Trump). The last occurrence before that was more than 100 years prior (1888 – Benjamin Harrison).
Even so, the discussion feels very stale, probably because it’s part of a larger effort to discredit anything and everything that originates from our country’s founding. It amounts to an ideological fire sale: everything old must go.
Among the Electoral College’s many detractors, the common sentiment seems to be that it is an outdated practice, and like the public statues of our Founding Fathers, we should have it removed without much thought about what should be put it in its place. Like the vandals who would erase history overnight, candidates and activists against our electoral system seem to care little for consequences of upheaval, believing that by simply asking, “does it work?” they are making some kind of profound statement. But none of these social bulldozers ever have a better answer. Instead, something more dangerous usually takes shape in place of what they destroy.
“But wait,” you say, “the popular vote is the purest answer! It’s democracy at its finest!”
The popular vote might have been a good answer at one time, but in comparison to newer ideas, it’s by far the oldest and most antiquated of them all, and it’s certainly not the best. In fact, the Founders had a deep distrust of direct democracy, based on their reading of ancient (especially Greek) history. They thought it would be inherently unstable and prone to breakdown in one face-off after another. They also believed that while democracy could be used to protect liberties, it was just as often a tool of tyrants, who could manipulate public opinion and engineer extra-legislative policy votes in the form of plebiscites and referendums.
Specifically, they feared that a faction with enough influence could convince a puppet electorate to vote away the rights of a minority. In the discussion of the time, it was commonly referred to as a “Tyranny of the Majority” and it was not unique to American political thought.
In Federalist Paper #10, James Madison spoke of the dangers of a faction that might attempt to gain power through a popular vote:
“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.”
In short, the popular vote is not your “Captain America” of electoral systems, although it might be his sloppy Greek cousin from the old country. The Founders were right to fear it, and adjust for its shortcomings in history. Those who still argue for direct democracy fail to recognize the safe-guards given to us in a representative republic, and how it is an upgrade to antiquated forms of simplistic democracy, not the other way around.
But let’s play along just a little longer.
What it would be like living in a United States where the Electoral College was dismantled and we elected the president by a popular vote? Can you imagine the ways that election strategies would change? Here are two likely outcomes:
1. Presidents would no longer have majority support
If the goal of a popular vote is to bring about a president on either side that has a majority of Americans behind them, it’s highly unlikely that will happen. Many people rail against the two party system, claiming it unfairly culls the possibilities of better leadership. Their arguments have some appealing points, but it’s unlikely we’d only have three or four parties. Factions for every issue from Pro-Life, to Anti-Gun to the actual Nazi Party of America (yes, they still exist) would suddenly have a shot at pushing their candidate to a plurality vote, and winning the presidency without the support of most Americans.
Let’s look at the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, where Ross Perot got 18.9% of the popular vote, but won zero electoral votes. He wouldn’t have won even if we had a popular vote, but he did manage to get Bill Clinton elected with less than 50% of total votes.
Because of the Electoral College, Perot never won any states, and therein lies the device that maintains our two party system. With zero chance of rallying enough support to win any electoral votes, we discourage smaller factions from running or even fundraising. Why would they try?
But what if we didn’t discourage this? What if the popular vote brought us a president from the most trendy political ideology of the year, but who only had the vote of 20% of Americans? This could easily happen if there were a dozen other candidates splitting up the vote previously known as Democrat or Republican voter-base.
For anyone who thought a president’s 40% approval rating was bad, try 10%. Going further, when the leader of the free world has so little of his or her’s own country supporting them, how would they be an effective leader? Even in other countries, the parliamentary system requires the formation of a coalition for any kind of government to take shape.
At the end of the day, a popular vote would not give anyone a mandate to govern. If a president were ever sworn into the White House with such a small, minority vote, he or she would be seen as illegitimate, and yet they would hold the highest office in the land.
Does any good ever come from a leader who is unpopular?
2. Rural America would be completely ignored.
Even if I’m wrong about the factionalization of political parties – and we do have winning candidates with a majority of the vote – we have to consider also how the popular vote undermines state authority. Undoubtedly, if we were to abandon the Electoral College, it would effectively dissolve any voting power held by Middle America.
Today, 80.7% of our population lives in urban settings. Where do you think candidates would really spend their time campaigning? The answer: they would spend 100% of their time speaking to people in California, New York, and a few key areas outside of the District of Columbia. Their deciding factors would no longer be “how many electoral votes does that state have?” Instead, it would be “how much money, political influence, or population does that city have?”
Rural states just wouldn’t matter because with a popular vote, they don’t have any power. Imagine the travel a candidate would have to commit to in order to win with a rural populace? Would it really be worth the time? Today, they already call it “fly-over country” for this reason, but with a popular vote it would become absolutely pointless to even give them a minute of a candidate’s time.
Ultimately, an urban lifestyle would begin to dictate policy and the issues that matter to people living in 97% of the geography of our country would be ignored. The debate would evolve to varying degrees of left-leaning policy that appeals only to people who live in cities and the suburbs.
Rural Americans would lose their voice entirely.
So what happens to a country when, years and years pass, elections come and go, and not one person in the heartland can remember ever seeing a presidential candidate in person, or even representing them online? What happens when an entire 97% of the geographical living space in this country has no voice?
The answer: Probably violence.
Alexander Hamilton put it this way, in Federalist Paper No.68:
“It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder…”
There is a reason we were organized as states first that continually agree to participate in the American experiment. States, as a compartmentalized governing bodies, deserve a representation for their local culture. I could think of no better reason for a state to secede than revoking its voice on the national stage and giving its influence to the coastal urban elites with money and power.
This country is not like any other, unless imitated. It has been called an “experiment”, and if it is one, it must undergo some scrutiny of its methods from time to time, but when the dissenting voices against the Electoral College speak up, they must offer something new, not a recycled idea from civilizations ruined long ago. And most of all, they need to be ideas brought about from careful thought, and not just disappointment from losing the last election, or a knee-jerk reaction to fix a system they do not understand in the first place.
It may not sound as romantic as a direct democracy, but this is the system that has brought us the stability that we now take for granted, or at least we do every time a Republican wins the presidency.