The Electoral College has been at the center of contentious debate since President Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 by winning the Electoral College while simultaneously losing the popular vote by around 3,000,000 ballots. It was reported earlier this week that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) hinted that the College was a racist “scam” used to disenfranchise minorities. There have been twelve states that have worked on legislation to eliminate their electoral votes by forcing their electors to ignore state ballots and vote for the candidate with the most national presidential votes. When the candidate who receives fewer national votes loses an election, how could one possibly justify the existence of a system that allows for that to happen? Please allow me to explain.
What is the Electoral College?
According to the House of Representatives, the Electoral College is unique to the United States. It was first established in Article II, Section I in the U.S. Constitution, and “Each state has as many ‘electors’ in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress, and the District of Columbia has three electors.” The function of the college is to ensure that highly populated areas do not dominate national elections.
The Electoral College is not set up for state or local elections, which is why we only hear about it during presidential elections every four years. While detractors often point to the unfairness of bypassing total national vote count and essentially making the vote of the individual irrelevant which might lead to low voter turnout in states with a “sure win” for one political party or another, supporters often argue that if not for the Electoral College, a candidate could win a national election by merely campaigning in and winning the majority of votes in California, New York, Florida, and Texas.
A Fundamental Misunderstanding
Despite claims made by presidential candidates and media pundits, the United States of America is not necessarily a “democracy” — often thought of as a “majority rules” style direct democracy in which each voter gets equal say on laws and public policy. The Founding Fathers did not put a label on the American form of government, though they were clear that they did not want a direct democracy. The system of government in the United States is often referred to as a constitutional republic or representative democracy. Our government is essentially a democracy in state and local elections, but a republic during national elections.
The Electoral College, then, is a federal representation of state democracies. Each individual vote still matters in state elections. Their votes also count toward the electoral vote of the Electoral College in their state. While is appears on a federal level that the “popular vote” is irrelevant, that is simply untrue. If we thought of individual states as “laboratories of democracy” as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described them in the New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann decision, the concept of the Electoral College becomes clearer.
The Electoral College is Necessary, Not Racist
Ocasio-Cortez’s egregious claim that the College is somehow anti-minority is simply erroneous. The Electoral College is absolutely necessary to the functioning of this Republic, and it protects racial and geographic minorities from the tyranny of the majority. If we want to maintain both our democratic and republican ideals, we must better understand the purpose of the College and the dangers of removing it — especially by using state laws to bypass the U.S. Constitution. The Electoral College increases the power of Rhode Island voters and keeps Californians from dictating national policy. It might be viewed as a “necessary evil,” but it is still necessary.