By Paul Koenig
Earlier this week, the 538 electors of the Electoral College met in their respective state capitals and the District of Columbia to cast their votes for president and vice president of the United States, officially awarding Joe Biden the presidency.
They did so in the face of both a pandemic and the Trump campaign’s fervent yet fruitless attempts to stop ballot counts, to overturn votes, and to cajole state legislators (including Pennsylvania Republican state legislators). As the political right pursues the path of election tampering, the left is never remiss to point out the seemingly undemocratic nature of the Electoral College.
It is fair to say that no matter where you stand politically, the Electoral College has become one of the most controversial institutions in American government.
However, it might be somewhat reassuring to know that the same was true of the Electoral College at the time of our nation’s founding.
Never a widely embraced institution at is inception in 1787, the Electoral College was a product of the unique time and place in which the country found itself. The question today is whether the Electoral College accords with our modern sensibilities and contemporary realities.
Given the ever growing dissatisfaction with the current system, there are many who would like to completely do away with the College. While the Electoral College is far from perfect, a complete dismantling and re-envisioning of how we elect our president is not the answer.
Reform should serve to produce an electoral system that better encapsulates our desires for both democracy and representation in a present-day context. This can be achieved in a twofold manner: (1) increased proportionality in the Electoral College; (2) increased representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A look at the Electoral College’s origins reveal two important truths for us to consider in discussions about the College’s future.
First, unlike today, contention over the College did not revolve around disagreements between states’ rights defenders and popular vote proponents. Instead, the delegates’ disputes centered on a single question: “Should Congress choose the president?”
The framers—worried about legislative overreach—did not think it wise to embolden Congress with the task of electing the chief executive. Neither did the framers think it wise to charge state legislatures with the task of electing the president.
Professor G. Alan Tarr has explained that while the state legislatures were charged with selecting the electors, it was the sole duty of the electors—free from state legislatures’ input or interference—to choose the president.
Flying in the face of those who argue that the Electoral College “preserve[s] federalism,” the late Martin Diamond notes that the Electoral College was “an anti-states-rights device, a way of keeping the election from state politicians and giving it to the people.”
The Electoral College was meant to safeguard our nation’s only national election from state-based manipulation – truly a testament to the framers’ wisdom.
Second, some framers did propose a national popular vote as a solution. While rejected in 1787, Tarr explains how the reasons for its rejection are seemingly “no longer relevant today.”
The decision was made based on the fear “that people would lack the information to make an informed choice” and that people, due to state-based biases, would simply choose whichever candidate resided in their home state. Today’s 24-hour news cycle and President Donald Trump’s general election losses in New York State speak to these claims’ present-day irrelevance.
Having come to grips with these truths, we can suggest meaningful reforms that take into account the realities of both our past and present with the hope of striking an effective equilibrium between democracy and representation. I propose an amended version of the Whole Number Proportional System (WNP) to do just that.
This system “divides a state’s electoral votes among presidential candidates based on each candidate’s share of the statewide popular vote.”
The WNP system increases competitiveness by introducing more swing states. While swing states are less than ideal, Professor Allen Guelzo reminds us that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 popular vote thanks to two cities—Los Angeles and Chicago. Guelzo and I would much rather candidates focus on ten states than two cities.
However, in order for the WNP system to function properly, it must be coupled with Congressional reform. At the present moment, “candidates can win a range of percentage shares of the statewide popular vote and win the same number of electoral votes.”
This is due to the fact that too great a share of a state’s popular vote lies within each of its few congressional districts. As David Litt wrote in The Atlantic this past spring, James Madison proposed “capping the size of each [U.S. House] district at 50,000 members.”
Today, the average congressional district contains 710,767 people. Increasing the number of Representatives in the U.S. House will achieve more accurate representation in both Congress and the College – ensuring that candidates who receive a greater percentage of the popular vote also receive a greater number of electoral votes.
A reformed WNP system is not perfect, but neither was the Electoral College in 1787 for that matter.
This twofold reform of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College will not put America’s presidential election controversies to rest; however, it will serve to better encapsulate the current makeup and mentality of a modern-day America.
Paul Koenig is a junior Political Science and Economics double major at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa.