As the amusingly convoluted plot of “Mission Impossible: Fallout” unfurls, an enraged subordinate asks the film’s villain: “Why did you have to make this so f---ing complicated?” Americans, frustrated by the way we choose our president, may know the feeling.
Much like Euclid’s Fifth Geometric Postulate, presidential elections are suspect if for nothing more than their sheer complexity. A plurality vote in their districts chooses representatives in the House. The Senate operates similarly, but on the state level, inculcating a federalist architecture in our national government. The president, in contrast, is chosen by the following process (keep up if you can): the Constitution grants each state a set number of electors equal to the size of their congressional delegation — or equal to the number of electors in the least populous state in the case of Washington, D.C. The state legislature can then choose their electors in any way they like, including by skipping such pesky inconveniences as elections and appointing them directly. Assuming a candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, that candidate becomes president; if no candidate wins a majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president. There, state delegations—not the individual representatives—elect the next president.
Got it? No? Well, consider this example: Suppose Joe Biden emerges as the Democratic challenger to President Trump. Further, suppose that Biden receives the most electoral votes but does not achieve the 270 necessary to win outright. In such a case, the Democrat-controlled House would still choose Donald Trump as president, because even though Democrats control a majority of the seats, Republicans control a majority of the state delegations.
This complexity exists, perhaps, because the Electoral College was not a wise decision handed down from atop Mount Rushmore. It was instead—like most things which emerge from political entities—a compromise. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, believed the popular vote was “the fittest in itself” and “as likely as any that could be decided to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character.” However, the slave states balked, and Madison relented, reasoning that “[t]he substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.” Madison’s sentiment is lukewarm praise if ever such existed.
All this needn’t be dispositive, of course. Supporters of the Electoral College have argued (not without point), that it is possible to make the right decision for the wrong reasons. We do not merely live in America, they argue, but in the United States of America, a country in which the people must give federalism its due. Madison acknowledged as much in Federalist 39. There he wrote that “[t]he votes allocated to [the states] are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and co-equal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society.” Additionally, the argument goes, this quasi-federalism incentivizes presidential candidates to wage genuinely national campaigns, and in so doing address the needs of smaller states.
Prima facie, the political philosophy is solid. It does, however, make claims that one can evaluate empirically.
In his excellent book, “Why the Electoral College is Bad for America,” Texas A&M Professor George C. Edwards III casts a calm and evaluative eye on the assertion that presidents are incentivized to campaign nationally. He observes that “[i]n 2016, no presidential candidate visited any of the seven smaller states” and that “[o]f the eight states with four or five electoral votes, [only] four received visits from a presidential candidate.” He also notes that advertising primarily addressed national concerns, and stump speeches remained the same wherever candidates gave them. The states which received the most attention were (to the surprise of no one) swing states — those that truly matter in our electoral system.
So, herewith, a modest proposal: In a country in which each state, no matter how small, gets two senators — and in a country in which the Tenth Amendment forever enshrines federalism in our national government — the Electoral College isn’t “wrong” so much as redundant, the political analogue of over-engineering a solution to a legitimate concern. Instead, imagine the beauty of a political geometry where the House serves the people’s needs as filtered through districts, the Senate serves the people’s needs as filtered through the states, and the White House represents the people’s needs unfiltered, speaking as one.
That would be a sensible system of checks and balances; that would be a system far more in-line with the original Madisonian vision.