Election 2016

Don't Abolish The Electoral College, Abolish The Popular Vote

The popular vote doesn't matter, so why continue pretending that it does? It only causes confusion and frustration. There's better ways.



It was the perfect ending to the strangest election in modern American history. Donald Trump was officially elected as the next president of these United States on December 19, winning by a wide margin in the Electoral College despite having lost the national popular vote six weeks earlier.

Trump's unexpected victory and loss in the popular vote unleashed a torrent of hot takes from Democrats and liberals calling for the abolition of the Electoral College. Their frustration is somewhat understandable, even if their motivations are purely political—after all, Democratic candidates have now won the popular vote in four of the five presidential contests held this century, but have lost three times in the Electoral College.

The basic argument goes something like this: the Electoral College is a relic of an age when democracy was still developing—an age when senators weren't even elected by popular vote—and that Article II, Clause II of the U.S. Constitution should be dumped into the rubbish bin of history. "Yes, Mr. Trump won under the rules, but the rules should change so that a presidential election reflects the will of Americans and promotes a more participatory democracy," opined the New York Times editorial board.

In response, there's been nearly as many Republicans and conservatives leaping to defend a system that has worked in their favor. The Electoral College was designed to prevent coastal elites from large states from getting to pick the president, they argue, and it is thus working perfectly well.

The Founding Fathers who designed the Electoral College were certainly skeptical of direct democracy and the mob-like factions that it could create. "The people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn," warned James Madison in Federalist #63. I think they were right to be concerned. That's not to say that they would look at the current state of affairs and conclude that everything is working exactly as it should.

Because, let's be honest here, it's not. This election—for reasons that go far beyond the Electoral College—brought out the worst of America. That's at least in part because of the illusion of electoral agency. People cried over Clinton's loss because they believed she should win, yes, but also because they believed they had helped her win—millions of people in California, New York, and other deep blue states wrongly believed their support would affect the outcome of the presidential race. It didn't, and learning that fact is painful.

In response, many of those same people want more agency in the process—more "participatory democracy," as the Times put it. That's why there are calls for the popular vote to be the only thing that matters.

More democracy isn't the cure for these problems. From Plato to John Stuart Mill to Bryan Caplan, there's no shortage of political thinkers who have exposed the deep cracks in the idea. In a new book, "Against Democracy," Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan adds to the list. Voters are irrational, ignorant, and incompetent, he argues, and placing limits on democracy makes just as much sense as letting attorneys sort through a pool of jurors to dismiss those who are disqualified. Brennan envisions a system where only coolly rational and educated individuals, those least likely to be affected by the emotional and partisan elements of politics, vote—though he's not clear on whether others would be excluded or whether he wishes they would just stay home.

I'm not sure it is possible to implement Brennan's epistocracy in the United States in any broad way, but the existence of the Electoral College gives us an opportunity to see what less democracy in presidential races might look like. It's hardly a bad thing.

With the prospect of Campaign 2020 kicking off before the headaches of Campaign 2016 have faded, allow me to suggest a better way forward. Keep the Electoral College, with some minor tweaks, and abolish the popular vote.

Yes, get rid of the popular vote. For all the money, time, and attention paid to the presidential race, the actual votes cast on Election Day are basically meaningless. In non-swing states, votes are literally meaningless. Even in states where a small number of votes could change the outcome of the election, your vote and mine are still so insignificant as to be practically worthless, as Reason editor in chief Katherine Mangu-Ward explained in detail in 2012.

The only reason to hold popular votes for president, as the system functions now, is to select the "electors" from each state who will participate in the Electoral College.

Here's a better way. Hold a national lottery to determine the 538 electors (drawing an appropriate number from the voter rolls of each state) and then let those people choose the president.

"Undemocratic!" you might be tempted to cry out.

Well, yes, but not really much less democratic than the system we currently use and, arguably, more democratic than the original design of the Electoral College, in which Electors were not bound in any way to the results of the popular vote in their states. The Founders envisioned a system in which well-read elites would be responsible for choosing the president, in theory as a check against the masses. With a lottery-based system, we'd be returning to that original idea, but with a populist twist.

The benefits of such a model, I'd argue, far outweigh the miniscule loss of casting a meaningless vote for president.

Consider: Almost everyone would get to ignore the election, if they want, because they don't have to pretend to care about it as a form of signaling. The Electors would be the only ones whose votes matters—the lottery to pick them would have to be held a few months before Election Day, I suppose—and everyone else could get on with their lives (or try to influence the Electors, if they are so inclined).

For starters, there would be unmeasurable benefits in the form of freeing people of the mental and emotional anguish created by presidential campaigns like the one we just experienced.

This model would seriously alter presidential campaigning as we know it, but mostly in a positive direction. There would be no need for broad appeals to races or classes, no more vapid identity politics, no more absurdly expensive (and months-long) campaigns, no more endless dissection of polls and un-skewing of cross-tabs.

In return for getting rid of all that cable news talking head fodder, we'd get something better. Each candidate would know exactly who they had to convince to win—a single mother from Toledo, a retiree from Albuquerque, a CEO from Seattle, and so on—and the 538 Electors would have tremendous power to force a discussion on the issues they cared about. It would be a months-long town hall debate—a real one, not one made for television—with the Electors standing in for all Americans.

There are other benefits too. With the presidential race truly out of the average voter's hands, those who want to be engaged in politics could (and would) focus on other races. More scrutiny of congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races would be welcome and would be possible only if we restore the presidential circus to its proper place.

Weighed against the questionable, miniscule, and illusory benefits of the presidential popular vote, the better choice seems clear. Let the Electoral College, with some tweaks, rule.