The Future of Republican Support for the Electoral College

Will conservatives still favor it if Democrats win the White House despite losing the popular vote?


In 2000, conservatives were obligated to explain why they supported preservation of the Electoral College even though it produced a victory for their candidate, George W. Bush. In coming elections, their devotion may face a sterner test: Will they favor it if Democrats win the White House even when Republicans carry the popular vote?

Mitt Romney managed to avoid that problem by coming up short across the board. But while Republicans have noticed that the voting public is changing in ways that don't help the GOP, they may not have noticed that the electoral map has also shifted to their clear disadvantage.

Nate Silver, who does the "FiveThirtyEight" blog for The New York Times and correctly predicted the outcome in all 50 states, noted afterward that Obama would have gotten a second term even if Romney had tied him in the popular vote.

In fact, he wrote, "Romney may have had to win the national popular vote by three percentage points on Tuesday to be assured of winning the Electoral College." No Republican has done that since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Texas A&M political scientist George Edwards III, author of "Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America," finds additional grounds for the GOP to worry. "With Obama's victory," he told me by email, "Democrats have now won 18 states—the 'blue wall'—for at least the past six consecutive elections. That's the most states Democrats have won consecutively for that often since the formation of the modern party system in 1828."

He went on: "Those 18 blue-wall states (joined by the District of Columbia) now provide Democrats 242 electoral college votes"—just 28 shy of the 270 needed to win. Republicans are swimming upstream.

So maybe they'll reassess this antique. Democrats got all the convincing they needed in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote to no avail. Republicans shouldn't wait till it happens to them.

If they look closely, they will find the arguments for the status quo don't stand up. Such as:

"We should respect the wisdom of the framers." When it came to devising a way to elect the president, they weren't so wise. Their system led, in 1800, to an election in which Thomas Jefferson and his own running mate, Aaron Burr, tied in the Electoral College. That flaw had to be fixed with a constitutional amendment, in 1804.

Stanford historian Jack Rakove, an authority on the Constitutional Convention, has written that "the framers did not reject popular election because of a fear that the people might fall prey to a demagogue. They worried instead that in a provincial society, citizens would never be well enough informed to make an effective choice without multiple and expensive rounds of elections."

They expected most presidents to be chosen by the House of Representatives because no one would get a majority in the Electoral College. So much for their infallibility.

"The Electoral College is a pillar of federalism and state sovereignty." False. The strength of federalism is the existence of states and their control over many spheres of government. The Electoral College allocates votes among states but doesn't confer any power on them. Canada lacks the Electoral College, and its provinces enjoy more power than our states.

Citizens cast presidential ballots according to individual preference, not state interests. Voters in Detroit don't vote to uphold the interests of rural residents of the Upper Peninsula, or vice versa. Kansans and Nebraskans do not see their needs as starkly different. We're all Americans, first and foremost.

"It forces candidates to pay attention to states they would otherwise ignore." True. It does so by forcing them to ignore other states—most of them. Only eight states saw Obama during the general election campaign, notes Edwards, and only 10 got visits from Romney.

"Without it, we'd face frequent massive recounts, multiple parties and narrowly based candidacies." Really? You'd never guess that we use simple majority rule in our other elections, without those awful consequences.

Senate races rarely generate vote-count disputes. Third parties hardly ever affect congressional elections. Candidates for governor campaign in rural as well as urban areas.

The Electoral College is a strange mechanism, created to avert imaginary dangers, that violates basic democratic principles for no good reason. Democrats have been ready to ditch it for at least 12 years. The GOP had better second the motion now, before they change their minds.