Our American form of representative democracy is derived from the democratic tradition of Ancient Greece and the republicanism of the Roman Empire. Of course, neither of those systems exhibited the universal suffrage Americans now see as our right, but both utilized a commitment to majority rule—and when an issue came to vote, the majority’s votes were decisive. America does not have a system in which the majority always rules. Due to a unique arrangement, designed as a political workaround at the time, known as the Electoral College, our current president-elect did not even win a plurality of the vote. Rather, he is likely to enter the White House having won 2.3 million FEWER votes than his rival.
Clinton’s 1.7% lead over Trump in the popular vote would have given her a margin of “victory” greater than that of nine of our forty-four elected presidents, which raises a question: how did this come about?
Under our Electoral College system, each state is worth Electoral College votes equal to the sum of its Representatives and Senators. The winner of each state’s popular vote wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes, no matter how small the margin of victory. In Michigan, for example, Donald Trump won by 0.2%—less than 11,000 votes—but received all 16 of Michigan’s Electoral College votes.
Few believe the Electoral College is close to a perfect system, but it is what our history gave us.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the so-called “Virginia Plan” was used as a jumping-off point for much of the Convention. The plan articulated many ideas that would be immortalized in the Constitution, but it called for election of the President by Congress, which was rejected because it risked creating a Chief Executive beholden to the legislature, undermining the separation of powers and weakening the checks and balances that are so important for good governance that our founding fathers strove to achieve.
Though James Madison (the author of the Virginia Plan) favored direct election of the president, he realized that the southern states would have rejected such a system. The reason? Slavery.
That issue had already reared its ugly head at the Convention, resulting in the now notorious [and hard to comprehend] Three-Fifth’s Compromise, which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for determining population size. But that compromise (which concerned proportional representation in the legislature) did not affect the popular vote because slaves could not vote. Thus the North could elect a president without appealing to the interests of the South. (This actually occurred when Abraham Lincoln was elected without winning a Southern state, which clearly helped contributed to the start of the Civil War.)
The Electoral College emerged as a compromise: states would gain more power as a function of population, but no state would be powerless in the election of a president.
The Electoral College has been subject to both intense criticism and rigorous defense over the years. In “Federalist 39”, Madison argues that the Electoral College is rooted in a fundamental philosophy of our government: that both states and individuals have legitimate interests and a claim to representation in the federal government.
More modern arguments are often practical. For example, it is clear that the Electoral College makes recounts possible and easier by focusing on individual states.
Despite its virtues, the College gives certain voters in small states disproportionate power. Under a purely mathematical interpretation, a vote in Wyoming is worth 3.6 times as much as a vote in California. Through a geographical lens, it favors voters in “swing states”, whose concerns become disproportionately important. In a suffragist analysis, the College essentially disenfranchises millions of voters: Texan Democrats, New York Republicans, and the 52.4% of Michigan voters who did not support Donald Trump all have legitimate reason to believe their votes effectively did not count.
However, a belief in the absolute value of majority rule is historically not correct. Neither democracy nor republic has been the norm for much of history. Aristocracy and monarchy, in various forms, have been far more common and persistent. And, that is to say nothing of empires, which are ruled—almost by definition—by ethnic or cultural minorities.
But America is not an aristocracy or monarchy, nor has it ever been an empire in the Roman or even British sense. So how can we now manage to deal with a president elect who lost the popular vote by quite a wide margin?
If Trump’s victory were simply an anomaly, we could accept it as a quirk of the system and move on, but it is not. Only five presidents had been elected without winning the popular vote, but two (Trump and the second Bush) were elected in the last sixteen years. Such current results suggest that the Electoral College no longer aligns with our more basic principle of majority rule.
The most straightforward way to guarantee majority rule would be to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote for President. Barring another Constitutional Convention, an amendment to the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Barring massive changes to the demographics and attitudes of the country, this looks to be virtually impossible given the disproportionate power held in both the Senate and Electoral College by less populous states.
Another way, which to my knowledge has never been formerly advanced, would be to have a run-off when a candidate wins the Electoral College without winning the overall popular vote. A runoff eliminates all but the top two candidates so that the winner inevitably must end up with a majority.
While there would be a brief period of uncertainty to make time for the run off, that is surely a better situation than electing a president without majority popular support, and the use of runoff systems in other countries has rarely caused problems and is very commonly used. Our country’s current public divide is likely a result, at least in part, of a vocal segment of the population feeling that Washington failed to hear them. Now sadly, a significant number of voters has clear evidence that their voices were simply ignored.
That cannot be good for the future of our nation.