As the result of the US election continues to sink in, one of the least surprising developments is a renewed round of demands for the abolition of the Electoral College system and its replacement with true one-person, one-vote democracy for presidential elections. Our Events Coordinator, Maria Murphy, makes the case at length here.
But I’ve had a couple of days since the result to think about it and whilst I’m not convinced of the merits of the current system, I do think that a defence of it can and should be made before people make up their minds.
I am instinctively against systems which what could be called create privileged categories of voters. For example I’m opposed to suggestions that there should have been a higher threshold in the Brexit referendum than 50 per cent, because that privileged the views of defenders of the status quo over those demanding change. Likewise I don’t think that Scotland or Northern Ireland should have had a veto over the outcome.
But it is foolishly doctrinaire to refuse ever to adapt one’s views to changing circumstances, and it’s not hard to see why the case of the United States might be different. Here are a few of the reasons that the popular vote – “full democratic practice”, in Maria’s words – may be a bad idea.
A very important factor in how US elections work, and how they should work, is that the United States is a nation on a continental scale. This has a number of effects which make the prospect of unchecked majoritarianism both philosophically problematic and practically difficult.
For starters, what voting system would be used? The assumption that a popular vote model would have delivered this race to Hillary Clinton only holds if you believe not only that people would have voted the same way under a different system, but that the different system would have been first-past-the-post.
As of the time of writing Clinton’s popular-vote lead over Donald Trump is, according to this site, just over 260,000 votes. Libertarian Gary Johnson got more than four million and Jill Stein of the Greens more than 1.2 million. Even right-wing independent Evan McMullin’s 450,000 votes are getting close to twice Clinton’s lead.
Of course I’m no opponent of first-past-the-post, but without a proportional element a majority-vote system would actually reduce the power of minor parties by robbing them of the chance to concentrate their votes and pick up a state or two, undermining another candidate and potentially holding the balance of power.
But the more serious objection is that a push for a majoritarian voting system is completely at odds with the recognised fact, repeated so often that it’s becoming cliché, that “America has never been more divided”.
If I had to make a single, over-arching defence of the current US electoral system, it’s that it has ensured that each side gets to be in power on a fairly regular basis.
Tellingly the two instances in the last five elections where the College has ‘thwarted’ the popular vote (albeit not a huge popular vote margin) it has been to the detriment of the same side: the Democrats. This explains both why Republicans tend to favour the College and why Democrat supporters, such as Vox, oppose it. That article also highlights that any move to a popular vote model would – assuming no change in voting patterns – favour the cities and coasts over rural and inland America.
The fact that one party would have won four of the past five Presidential elections – probably all five, given that the Republicans wouldn’t have had incumbency in 2004 – is a big potential problem with moving to a popular vote system. It might not be in a country with a relatively strong political consensus, unified culture, and narrow Overton Window, but the United States is definitely not that country.
Vox argues that rural and, let’s be honest, Republican America has things like the Senate to represent their interests. But it’s difficult to believe that progressive advocates of reform are advancing that argument in good faith. What they’re holding out is the prospect of half the country fighting a doomed rear-guard action against an office consistently held by a faction they neither trust nor respect.
I think there’s more than one answer to the question of what the central purpose of democracy is. Making sure the person with the most votes always wins is a good one, and the one to which I subscribe by default. But what if that clashes, not just in a one-off vote like a referendum but consistently, with the principle of government by consent?
This year Clinton’s margin over Trump is, again according to the site I linked above, 264,939 votes out of 126,305,866 cast: that’s 0.2 per cent. In 2000 Al Gore beat George W Bush by the more substantial 547,398 in an election with about 20 million fewer ballots cast, but that’s still just 0.5 per cent. Obviously those numbers may change at the margins depending on what source you use, but it’s the scale that’s important.
Now 0.5 per cent, even 0.2 per cent, are not nothing. But nor do they strike me as so overwhelming as to make an “irrefutable” case for a system which would likely skew the White House heavily towards a group who are only a majority by such slender margins. Especially after an election where the key lesson we’re meant to be learning is that political elites haven’t been paying enough attention to the sort of people who just voted for Trump.
I’m instinctively unsympathetic to the Electoral College’s underlying assumption that votes should weigh differently, yet I think it may be necessary if America is to have a government its citizens consent to. I agree that a system which privileges elites is wrong, but I’m not convinced that the College does that – in fact by forcing urban politicians to stump in rural, non-coastal America it might just do the opposite.
Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @HCH_Hill
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty