Debates about the Electoral College, like the one that Democrats have lately instigated, often get bogged down in disputes about the intentions of the founding generation — whether they were trying to check mob rule, prop up Southern power, preserve the power of small states, or simply come to a necessarily arbitrary constitutional compromise.
These disputes are historically interesting but somewhat practically irrelevant…
Is there a case for a system that sometimes produces undemocratic outcomes? I think so, on two grounds. First, it creates incentives for political parties and candidates to seek supermajorities rather than just playing for 50.1 percent, because the latter play is a losing one more often than in a popular-vote presidential system.
Second, it creates incentives for political parties to try to break regional blocs controlled by the opposition, rather than just maximizing turnout in their own areas, because you win the presidency consistently only as a party of multiple regions and you can crack a rival party’s narrow majority by flipping a few states.
According to this — admittedly contrarian — theory, the fact that the Electoral College produces chaotic or undemocratic outcomes in moments of ideological or regional polarization is actually a helpful thing, insofar as it drives politicians and political hacks (by nature not the most creative types) to think bigger than regional blocs and 51 percent majorities.
The principle of federalism is almost never raised when I see the Electoral College’s merits brought up. Transitioning to a national popular vote would only make worse the present state of affairs, where governors and states act as little more than regional territorial managers for a central federal apparatus. A national popular vote would also lead to enormous disengagement from constituencies whose interests would be more or less permanently shut out, and that alone is a recipe for weakening the body politic.
But whatever present debate really exists over the Electoral College can be answered more simply by point out that Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency thanks so much to a flawed or outdated electoral system, as he did thanks to the failure of Hillary Clinton’s get-out-the-vote efforts: “Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states…“
If those 80,000 people had voted differently, would there be hand-wringing about a supposedly outmoded system? No.