D.J. Tice’s defense of the Electoral College (“Don’t be too quick to scrap the Electoral College,” April 14) misstates history and ignores the true nature of the winner-take-all system.
Tice proclaims as “simple fact” that “America’s many framers” — from the constitutional convention to the present — “have never found a single type of question that they judged would be best submitted to a nationwide popular vote.”
In fact, at the Constitutional Convention itself, several of the framers judged that the president should be elected by the people directly. Two delegations voted for this. Gouverneur Morris and Rufus King argued for electing the president “by the people at large.” James Madison agreed, reporting of his own position: “The people at large was in his opinion the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character.” Madison recognized, however, the “serious difficulty” the “Southern States” would have with direct election: they “could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty.”
The Electoral College was clearly an unholy if necessary compromise with slavery. Even following the Civil War, the Electoral College crisis of 1876 helped perpetuate racial injustice by ending Reconstruction, which led to another century of racial subjugation.
In 1969, in the midst of the civil rights era, 338 more “framers” added their voices. A resolution for a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College passed the House of Representatives 338-70.
These framers were disgusted by segregationist George Wallace’s contemplated Electoral College manipulation: Deny either party an Electoral College majority and extort a commitment to block progress on civil rights in exchange for electoral votes. A segregationist filibuster killed the resolution in the Senate.
Born of racial injustice, the Electoral College was saved by white supremacists using an anti-majoritarian rule.
Tice’s weak justification for the winner-take-all system — “each state becomes more important” — masks its true nature. This system was not part of the constitutional design, and well into the 1830s it competed with the district-by-district system. Its ultimate ascendancy allowed “the dominant party in the legislature [to] suppress any minority electoral votes,” according to Alan Johnson in “The Electoral College” (2018). Winner-take-all is a purely partisan invention that tramples distinct communities of interest and transforms a diverse state into a monolith. The values of “geographic political districting” do not redeem such a system; they condemn it.
Tice belittles “rigid head-count equality.” But for two centuries, governors have been elected by majority vote. The states follow the simple truths Madison set forth in Federalist No. 57: “The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government,” and No 58: majority rule is “the fundamental principle of free government …”
Tice’s best theoretical argument — that the Electoral College forces candidates to concern themselves with diverse concerns across America — is a fairy tale. The winner-take-all system sorts states into ideological camps and ignores the vast majority of states and some 100 million voters. The system lacks Madison’s core mechanism — reliance on “the extent … of the Union” — for protecting the republic from a “factious leader“ (Federalist No. 10).
A national popular vote election would be fundamentally different. It would be conducted throughout the full “extent of the union.” It is estimated turnout would increase by between 10 million and 50 million votes. No one could predict the outcome.
With today’s technology, voters can easily be reached, wherever they live. Communities of interest defy artificial state boundaries and can be readily organized. No candidate could ignore the interests of the 60 million citizens who live in rural America.
Metropolitan areas are not “ideologically monolithic regions”; they encompass the full range of opinions. Even in the counties that Tice cites, 30% of the votes were not for Clinton. And who knows what the vote would have been had Donald Trump campaigned in those counties, instead of belittling them?
For the future, candidates will seek votes wherever the voters are. They will not ignore 100 million voters — urban or rural. They will use technology to reach as many voters as possible as efficiently as possible. That feels like democracy — the kind of democratic republic James Madison would have approved.
Mark Bohnhorst, of Minneapolis, is chair of the State Presidential Elections Team at Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections.