Conventional wisdom tells us that the Electoral College requires that the person who lost the popular vote this year must nonetheless become our president. That view is an insult to our framers. It is compelled by nothing in our Constitution. It should be rejected by anyone with any understanding of our democratic traditions — most important, the electors themselves.
The framers believed, as Alexander Hamilton put it, that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the [president].” But no nation had ever tried that idea before. So the framers created a safety valve on the people’s choice. Like a judge reviewing a jury verdict, where the people voted, the Electoral College was intended to confirm — or not — the people’s choice. Electors were to apply, in Hamilton’s words, “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice” — and then decide. The Constitution says nothing about “winner take all.” It says nothing to suggest that electors’ freedom should be constrained in any way. Instead, their wisdom — about whether to overrule “the people” or not — was to be free of political control yet guided by democratic values. They were to be citizens exercising judgment, not cogs turning a wheel.
Many think we should abolish the Electoral College. I’m not convinced that we should. Properly understood, the electors can serve an important function. What if the people elect a Manchurian candidate? Or a child rapist? What if evidence of massive fraud pervades a close election? It is a useful thing to have a body confirm the results of a democratic election — so long as that body exercises its power reflectively and conservatively. Rarely — if ever — should it veto the people’s choice. And if it does, it needs a very good reason.
So, do the electors in 2016 have such a reason?
Only twice in our past has the Electoral College selected a president against the will of the people — once in the 19th century and once on the cusp of the 21st. (In 1824, it was Congress that decided the election for John Quincy Adams; likewise in 1876, it was Congress that gave disputed Electoral College votes to Rutherford B. Hayes.)
In 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland but won in the Electoral College, only because Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall turned New York away from the reformer Cleveland (by fewer than 15,000 votes). In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a tiny fraction — half a percent — and beat Al Gore in the Electoral College by an equally small margin — less than 1 percent.
In both cases, the result violated what has become one of the most important principles governing our democracy — one person, one vote. In both cases, the votes of some weighed much more heavily than the votes of others. Today, the vote of a citizen in Wyoming is four times as powerful as the vote of a citizen in Michigan. The vote of a citizen in Vermont is three times as powerful as a vote in Missouri. This denies Americans the fundamental value of a representative democracy — equal citizenship. Yet nothing in our Constitution compels this result.
Instead, if the Electoral College is to control who becomes our president, we should take it seriously by understanding its purpose precisely. It is not meant to deny a reasonable judgment by the people. It is meant to be a circuit breaker — just in case the people go crazy.
In this election, the people did not go crazy. The winner, by far, of the popular vote is the most qualified candidate for president in more than a generation. Like her or not, no elector could have a good-faith reason to vote against her because of her qualifications. Choosing her is thus plainly within the bounds of a reasonable judgment by the people.
Yet that is not the question the electors must weigh as they decide how to cast their ballots. Instead, the question they must ask themselves is whether there is any good reason to veto the people’s choice.
There is not. And indeed, there is an especially good reason for them not to nullify what the people have said — the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. We are all citizens equally. Our votes should count equally. And since nothing in our Constitution compels a decision otherwise, the electors should respect the equal vote by the people by ratifying it on Dec. 19.
They didn’t in 1888 — when Tammany Hall ruled New York and segregation was the law of the land. And they didn’t in 2000 — when in the minds of most, the election was essentially a tie. Those are plainly precedents against Hillary Clinton.
But the question today is which precedent should govern today — Tammany Hall and Bush vs. Gore, or one person, one vote?
The framers left the electors free to choose. They should exercise that choice by leaving the election as the people decided it: in Clinton’s favor.
Lawrence Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of “Republic, Lost: Version 2.0.” In 2015, he was a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.