Oliver Steinberg, a thoughtful occasional contributor to these pages — as well as a not-very-admiring reader of mine over many years — e-mailed the other day as follows:
“Somewhere in my files I have past articles I’ve sent the Star Tribune, taking exception to your misplaced affection for and confidence in the Electoral College — a sadly reactionary sentiment you expressed again just before this fiasco of an election.”
I actually don’t recall including a specific defense of the Electoral College among my reactionary outbursts this year. But if I did, it likely slipped out while I was busy harping on the importance of upholding America’s overall system of constitutional checks and balances in the presence of this year’s unsettling candidacies, with their promises of drastic political innovations.
Anyhow, Steinberg, who speaks for many in his distaste for the Electoral College, continues with a challenge in the wake of Donald Trump’s election:
“Are you still so confident that the Framers’ bulwark against democracy is such a fine thing?”
As a reactionary for hire, under orders to produce commentary at the slightest provocation, I am left with no choice.
Yes, as it happens, I am still convinced the Electoral College does America more good than harm. More precisely, I am still not convinced that alternative systems would surely be better, free from difficulties and distortions. Imaginary systems always are perfect; real ones never are.
That said, it’s unfortunate that the main problem with the Electoral College has struck again. For the second time in 16 years — the fifth time in U.S. history — the Electoral College outcome and the popular vote were in conflict on Nov. 8.
Hillary Clinton received more individual votes nationwide than Trump did. But Trump won a plurality within enough states to secure a majority of Electoral College votes, which is how a president is chosen under the U.S. Constitution.
Mismatches between the popular and Electoral College vote are a problem because they understandably inspire confusion and a sense of injustice. The question becomes whether this flawed, indirect election system bestows benefits enough to compensate.
First, the Electoral College tends to produce decisive outcomes. A pure popular vote contest might often lead to a disputed result.
Take this year. At last count, Clinton had surpassed a million-vote margin over Trump. It’s important to remember that the campaigns would implement different strategies in a popular vote contest — so these results simply don’t prove that Clinton would have won such a race. And while her lead is considerable, it’s still only about 1 percent of all votes cast — narrow enough to produce uncertainty if popular votes directly determined the winner and set armies of lawyers into motion.
In the unusual election of 2000, when the presidential race was decided by the paper-thin popular vote margin of a single state (and in Minnesota’s 2008 Senate election), we saw what agonies a mere statewide recount battle can produce. Imagine it on a national scale.
But this year, as is more usual under the Electoral College, reversing Trump’s victory would require that separate results in multiple states be proven wrong. That was from the start so unlikely that no hint of a real dispute arose.
Critics of the Electoral College insist, of course, that only a pure, one person-one vote popular system can be considered fair. But it has never been a principle of American political philosophy that the only valid form of equal rights were individual rights.
From the beginning, this has been a vast, varied nation, embracing residents of crowded cities and of lonely frontiers under a single government. Differences in interests, customs and beliefs have only multiplied. Allowing people to enjoy some rights, autonomy and equality through groups and communities — especially as citizens of the separate states that gave the national government birth — is an important way America’s system has safeguarded freedom in all its forms.
The Electoral College, by giving states, as distinct polities, a role in choosing presidents, forces politicians to concern themselves with appealing to a broad coalition of concerns across America.
Under a pure popular vote system, running up one’s vote totals in small but loyal regions and narrow demographic groups would be a smart politician’s single-minded objective. There would be little strategic sense in broadening one’s message to pursue a wider appeal.
But when a candidate has to win separate contests inside the borders of numerous states to prevail, he or she is forced to break out of the partisan stronghold and seek support in the opposition’s backyard.
Critics intone that the Electoral College causes campaigns to focus exclusively on closely divided “swing states” that can always go either way. But campaigns swallow such dogma at their peril.
Trump won precisely because Democrats didn’t realize the industrial Midwest (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, etc.) included “swing states” — until he swung them. Clinton ran up the score in Democrats’ Northeast and West Coast comfort zones, but lost touch with the heartland.
In the end, to answer the question put to me, I am not “so confident” in the Electoral College as I was before this year’s vote. But I wish those eager to dismantle and redesign long-standing systems were a tad less confident, too. We’ve been restlessly “reforming” our political system for a century — and we all agree the result isn’t working just right.
Which brings to mind another complaint in Steinberg’s e-mail. He faults me for attributing a quote to Winston Churchill just before Election Day that scholars believe the great statesman/wit never wrote or said — “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
I should have noted the disputed provenance of that line. But it has an acerbic wisdom worthy of Churchill, and it seems worth repeating yet again this November, whoever said it first.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.