Responding to “In Defense of the Electoral College”

By ZHUANG (MICHAEL) XU

On April 8, The Catalyst published an op-ed titled “In Defense of the Electoral College” by Nate Hochman. Although I admire Hochman’s courage in articulating an idea likely unpopular in the Colorado College community, I do have to disagree with him.

Hochman’s reason for defending the Electoral College goes like this: the founders of the United States didn’t want the American political system to be a direct democracy because that would lead to the so-called “tyranny of the majority” and consequently to the suppression of political minorities. So they created a republic and the Electoral College system necessary to preserve it. Moreover, he argues that the current effort to undo the Electoral College “is clearly partisan, arising largely as a knee-jerk desire to do away with an institution which is seen by many on the Left as producing politically unfavorable results following the 2016 presidential election.”  

I have few objections with the first half of Hochman’s statement. Yes, James Madison was worried about the factions that would inevitably exist in the new country and was convinced that a republic would prevent, or at least restrain, majorities from abusing their power. And yes, such a philosophy no doubt was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Electoral College. 

The problem is that Hochman suggests that the Framers, including Madison, were right. Otherwise, his article would have simply been a summary of “The Federalist 10” retitled “Why Did the Founding Fathers Create the Electoral College,” not an alarming argument against the abolishment of Electoral College.   

I disagree with Hochman for three major reasons. First, he seems convinced that the desire to abolish the Electoral College is purely partisan, the product of Democrats’ political naiveté. Regardless of the condescension in his statement, Hochman is simply wrong in this belief. Had the Electoral College been so popular, there would not have been a constitutional amendment specifically to modify it. 

Moreover, people from both parties have supported initiatives to abolish the Electoral College for years. For example, in 1969, the American Bar Association proposed a constitutional amendment to change the U.S. electoral system to one based on national popular vote. Nixon then came up with his own proposal to change the Electoral College; although it was passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House of Representatives, it failed in the Senate. Currently, some states have pledged to give their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. People that oppose the Electoral College do so for many reasons, and most have nothing to do with their party affiliation. 

Second, Hochman used the “Reign of Terror” in France under the Jacobins as an example of the “tyranny of the majority.” The problem is that it is far-fetched to claim that “Reign of Terror” was enabled by direct democracy while overlooking all other complicated political and cultural realities in France at the time. It is certainly true that large factions can abuse direct democracy to further their interest at the expense of minority factions, but that is a vastly different scenario from one in which the majority faction murders people who belong to other factions. The extreme violence that majority factions have imposed on minority factions throughout history usually results from complete failures of political systems and the rule of law. 

Is it important to protect the interest of political minorities? Absolutely. But why should states be the sole political bodies not subjected to “the tyranny of the majority?” Herein lies the hypocrisy of supporters of the Electoral College, who claim it’s necessary to protect small, rural states: if political representation needs to compensate for population gap between different states to prevent inter-group oppression, shouldn’t this kind of compensation be extended to groups other than states that face way more intense political friction? 

Hochman said, “The innovative genius of our constitutional system lies in its ability to provide for representative government while still protecting individual rights and minority political groups.” This statement is laughable when considering U.S. treatment of racial and socioeconomic minority groups. Should African Americans also be politically empowered to match white people to prevent the “tyranny of the majority” that actually happened in the U.S. in the most brutal and heartbreaking fashion? Should all economic classes be considered as monolithic units that are granted equal political power? Should all political parties get equal representation in Congress? 

I very much doubt that people who think small states deserve more representation will support these proposals. Of course, I acknowledge that states are important organs in the functioning of U.S. politics. However, it infuriates me when some conservative politicians identify themselves as protectors of small states against the “tyranny of majority” while being unable or unwilling to see the ways other minority groups’ rights are trampled.   

Third, even if Hochman is correct about the “tyranny of the majority” and the necessity of establishing a republic, the Electoral College as a political institution is useless in fulfilling these ideals. It is a common misconception that the Electoral College protects and empowers states with smaller populations. Indeed, the Electoral College can be counter-majoritarian, but this does not mean that it benefits small states. 

The cause of the weird “winning-popular-vote-but-losing-election” phenomenon is the “winner-takes-all” nature of how states award electoral votes — in almost all states, the winner of the popular votes wins all the state’s electors. This system actually favors the big states such as Florida, Texas, and California, the majority of which Trump won during the 2016 President Election. So, while the Electoral College was counter-majoritarian in 2016, it did not make voters in states such as South Dakota and Wyoming more politically powerful. 

Hochman’s claim that the Electoral College is part of the United States’ republican nature is also untrue. Madison himself wrote that “the two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.” 

Congress is the political institution that makes the United States a republic — elected representatives, rather than citizens, produce and vote on policy proposals. When Madison talked about “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations,” he clearly meant Congress. The electors, on the other hand, do not operate in the same way. They are appointed by parties instead of elected by the public, and vote based on the state’s popular vote outcome. Abolishing the Electoral College will not change the fact that the U.S. is a republic. 

The protection of individual rights is indeed important to the proper functions of the U.S., but it does not need to be ensured by counter-majoritarian institutions. As Washington becomes more polluted with dark money and fringe interest groups, there will only be more outcries for popular democracy in the future. Such sentiment should not be suppressed simply because James Madison did not like it more than two hundred years ago. 

 

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