Bypass the Electoral College? Careful what you wish for.
The National Popular Vote movement to bypass the Electoral College would fracture American politics and undermine important safeguards of our individuals rights.
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Because the Electoral College has a geographic distribution requirement, rather than simply taking the plurality winner of the national popular vote, it compels candidates and parties to build and maintain national coalitions.Skip to next paragraph
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Lessons from Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland learned this lesson the hard way. Running for reelection in 1888, he received the most popular votes but lost the Electoral College and thus the presidency to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won 82 percent in South Carolina, and more than 70 percent in Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Harrison was nowhere so intensely popular, but he won in the most states, including large population states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
After the 1888 election, Cleveland and the Democratic Party redoubled their efforts to reach into the North and out to the new western states. They succeeded – Cleveland won the popular vote and the Electoral College in 1892, becoming the only person elected to two non-consecutive terms as President.
Without the Electoral College, the Democratic Party of 1888 would have had a successful campaign strategy: intense regional popularity. If National Popular Vote had been the law of the land, the Democrats could have remained the party of the Deep South. The Electoral College forced the Democrats to look north and to rebuild their national coalition, even in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The threat of regional politics is one of the original reasons for the Electoral College. The Framers of the Constitution feared “favorite son” candidates: politicians who might rise to power based on strong support from one large state or region. The geographic distribution required by the Electoral College provides a healthy incentive to keep American politics national.
Dangers of majoritarianism
Reminders of the 2000 election – when George W. Bush lost the national popular vote but won the electoral vote – and pleas for “every vote equal” and “one person, one vote” have won some converts to the cause of the National Popular Vote.
Yet the argument against the Electoral College is, at its core, the argument for simple majoritarianism. Many observers have noted that the rationale of the National Popular Vote movement would mean the end of the US Senate, where states are represented equally regardless of the size of their population.
Majoritarianism – the idea that nothing should stand in the way of the power of a majority – flies in the face of the Bill of Rights. After all, every check and balance and especially every protection of rights operates to restrain the power of a momentary majority.
Opponents of the Electoral College would do well to remember that freedom and prosperity rely on social and political stability. This is the thesis of the United States Constitution, which establishes durable political institutions together with processes that incentivize coalition building and moderation. The Electoral College serves these ends, and by doing so, strengthens our political system and supports our freedom.