Tara Ross wrote a book (second edition published in 2012) about the value of the Electoral College. She summarizes her points in favor of the electoral college in a short PragerU video, which I’ve seen some people post now that we have had the second election in sixteen years in which the winner in the electoral college is not the winner of the popular vote.
I happen to agree with Ross with some of the ideas in her other book, about George Washington’s attitude toward religion and democracy. For example, I think religious participation and belief can support democracy, and governments ought to encourage religion in general without supporting any particular sect or favoring any particular religion. However, when it comes to her defense of the electoral college, I’m not in agreement with her argument. Let me present my analysis and discuss the points she makes in her short Praeger lecture.
Tara Ross begins by asking a good question. “Why do we have the electoral college, and why do we still need it?” A better way to phrase this question might have been, “what reasons still justify its continuing presence, and what arguments justify removing it, and on balance, ought we to keep it or abandon it?” But, this isn’t a fair inquiry into the electoral college. She is an intellectual who lives in the conservative bubble. She presents her ideas and gets heard by all the think-tanks and media outlets and journalism outlets that are funded by the capitalist elite class in its attempt to shape public opinion and government debate, and in that realm of the American Enterprise Institute, the Weekly Standard, the National Review, Fox News, and so forth, people don't really ask fair-minded and dispassionate questions… everything is prepared to support a particular agenda. Every word is chosen to influence people into the cult. I could say the same about some left-wing media outlets (you don’t read or watch The Nation or In These Times or Daily Kos or The Young Turks with the intention of being exposed to a broad range of ideas and fair-minded questioning either). At any rate, her answer to her question of “why we still need the electoral college” is based on the idea that it protects us from the flaws of direct democracy, it encourages nation-wide campaigning and other good results in election politics, and it prevents anyone from stealing elections. I think she’s wrong in just about every point she makes.
Tara Ross then claims that “the founders” believed we should not have a pure majority-rule democracy. She also claims that “the founders” allegedly “knew” that pure democracies did not work, and they knew this because they had studied the history of pure democracies.
Well, who are the “founders” she is talking about? Of course James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were all opposed to direct democracy, but those were not the only “founders” and James Madison actually supported the idea of direct popular election of the President. Also, in what cases was representative government favored, and in what cases was direct popular voting favored? It’s obvious enough that even back when the nation had only four million voters, they couldn't possibly deliberate and vote on all the various laws. The town hall direct democracy of New England wasn’t going to work at the level of state governments, let alone the federal government. Of course as a practical necessity, the “founders” all agreed there would need to be some form of representation and representative authority. It wasn’t workable to have direct democracy for the nation as a whole, or for the states, rather than representative assemblies, and no one proposed direct democracy as a plausible alternative to having a Senate or a House and Senate. So, when conservatives such as Ross claim that the “founders” wanted representative government rather than direct democracy, they are not saying anything that really helps their point. Of course the founders wanted representative government, that’s not the question. The question is why do we need representative government (a college of electors) to elect our President rather than having the President selected by a popular vote. It’s a specific issue, not a general question about direct democracy at the Federal level.
In fact, at the Constitutional Convention the direct election of the president was suggested as a possible method for choosing the leader of the executive branch (the other possibilities were having the House choose the President, which still can happen if no candidate gets more than 270 votes in the Electoral College, having state legislatures select the president, and the electoral college system we ended up with). Clearly, the founders who proposed the direct election of the president at the Constitutional Convention were not so opposed to direct democracy in that one specific case of electing the president. In fact, on August 24, 1787, the vote to have direct popular election of the president went down with 2 states for and 9 states against. So, some of the founders were certainly comfortable with the idea of direct popular elections of the president. Who were these founders? In one source I find that “Direct election by the people had strong support from some of the leaders at the convention, including James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and James Wilson, also of Pennsylvania. John Dickinson, Rufus King, Daniel Carroll, and Abraham Baldwin also supported popular election.” (George C. Edwards, Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, page 81)
Ross does not actually state her case, but she is implying that the electoral college is one method of protecting our republic from the harmful possibilities of direct pure democracy. No doubt direct democracy can be harmful, and it’s certainly unworkable as a system of regular government for any group of people that exceeds a fairly small number—perhaps a hundred thousand. But, a government can clearly protect itself from those harms through a variety of means, such as having two representative legislative bodies with one having members elected infrequently, checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and restricting the role of direct elections, referenda, and recall votes to a manageable level, perhaps by setting up requirement for petitions and the collection of many signatures before allowing direct popular voting on issues of concern. The question Tara Ross ought to address is whether, when all these things are present to protect citizens from the abuses and logistical difficulties of direct democracy, it is still necessary to elect the chief executive through an electoral college. That’s the real question, and her answer is just to generally say that direct democracy is dangerous (no doubt it can be) and we need protection from its problems (no doubt we do), and the electoral college does this (that is the question at issue, and simply stating it as a fact does not win her case for her).
Tara Ross claims that the founders “knew” that direct democracy tended to fail.
She makes the claim that “pure democracies do not work. They implode.” What was the evidence for that? Well, Madison claimed, “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.” (Federalist Paper #10). In other words, with popular government (“direct democracy”) you get the violence of faction, the tyranny of the majority, and a tendency toward instability, injustice, and confusion, and this tendency is just what the enemies of democratic governments use to justify their tyranny (illustrated well by how China state media point to the election of Donald Trump as proof that the American system is failing, and the form of dictatorship led by the Chinese Communist Party is superior). Is this really so? What did the founders know, and what are the facts?
The American “founders” knew direct democracy from their knowledge of classical history: the Roman Republic, the Greek City States (which were sometimes democratic, as was Athens in the times of Pericles, Cleisthenes, and after the overthrow of the 30 tyrants, guided by the ideas of Solon and others). They also knew (if they were from New England) about town governments using direct democracy in town hall meetings. Did they know about the councils of the Althing in Iceland, or the deliberative councils of the Seneca, or the governing councils of the Six Nations (the Haudenosaunee “Iroquois" Confederacy)? They certainly did know about democracy in the Indian system of governance. Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, was very familiar with the Seneca politics and governance, and I think Benjamin Franklin knew something about the governance systems within the Six Nations. Had any of these examples collapsed and failed?
There were other historical examples beyond Rome and Greece, and not just the popular assembly in Iceland or the tribal assemblies of Northeastern American Indian nations. What about the system of direct democracy in the smaller Swiss cantonal governments and communal assemblies, or the guild systems and elected assemblies in the free cities and small states such as those in the Hanseatic League or Venice or Florence or Strasbourg? Those historical examples offered a mixed record: stability in Switzerland, instability in Italian city states. How about the democratic forms of governance in Novgorod that flourished until Moscow took over? That system seemed to flourish for a long time, and external, rather than internal problems ended its success. It’s clear from Federalist Paper #20 that Madison was aware of the systems of governance in the Dutch Republic, and he didn’t approve (the United Provinces were a confederation of seven or eight tiny states that functioned as a republic between 1581 and 1795; they were the first government to recognize the independence of the United States). Within the Dutch republic some of the states practiced direct democracy (Friesland comes to mind), and I don’t recall that they ever had any implosion. San Marino has been a republic since the 4th century, and it uses direct democracy through referenda, and it used a general popular assembly (the “Arengo”) for centuries without implosion. The claim that direct democracies “implode” is an empirical claim, and I don’t know what the evidence for or against it may be, but I would be very surprised to find that Tara Ross has conducted some sort of survey of direct democracies to support her argument, and I can find no historical reference work to answer the question, either. My sense is that there are several examples of long-term direct democracy that endured for centuries without implosion, and these have been especially successful in smaller city states or in areas of low population.
She then points out that forms of governance in which bare majorities can easily tyrannize the rest of the country are unfair to minorities (she uses the simile of two wolves voting against a sheep about what to have for dinner). This is an interesting point, and it’s very relevant to how legislative assemblies are formed. However, is it relevant to the issue of selecting a president? The problem of the president being a “wolf” is corrected by having the legislature control the creation of legislation, the approval of appointments and treaties, the allocation of money, and so forth. The Supreme Court can also weigh in and declare a President’s actions unconstitutional. So, why do we need the Electoral College? Ross again gives a general argument that would support the principles that shape the structure of our government, but may have no relevance to the specific question at hand.
Ross then explains that we have three branches of government to protect us from the tyranny of the majority. Exactly. Since we have these branches of government, and many other things in our Constitution to protect us from the tyranny of the majority, how is it that we still need the Electoral College to protect us from a popular vote for the president? In what case would the Electoral College give us a president different from one who won the popular vote? Well, in 2000 and 2016 the Electoral College stepped in when the popular vote was quite close. If the popular vote is quite close in the election of the president, isn’t it also the case in actual practice that the legislature will be fairly evenly divided? If the Congress is fairly evenly divided, why do we need the further work of the Electoral College? In a situation where the popular vote is very close, is it plausible that this is because a candidate has won a fantastic majority in a few regions or large states and been utterly defeated everywhere else? If that even were the case, how would choosing one candidate over the other in the electoral college protect a minority from a tyranny of the majority? Isn’t it much more likely that in close elections, each candidate will have a fair degree of support everywhere, with perhaps a few lopsided losses and victories here and there, but not the sort of total isolated regional victory the Electoral College was designed to thwart?
She also claims that the threat of tyranny of the majority is the reason why each state has two senators, regardless of the state’s population (so that people in Wyoming and Montana and Alaska and Vermont get one senator for every 400,000 to 600,000 persons while people in California, Texas, and New York get one senator for every 10 to 18 million persons). Another way to express this is to look at the actual situation we face in America now. The rural states and rural areas of sparsely populated landscapes–the places where the people are almost all European-American—hold a minority of the population. Urban centers and metropolitan areas (that also happen to have great racial diversity, partly because a few generations ago some European-Americans had pogroms and laws to force Americans without European-American heritage out of their rural areas) have most of the population. So, while most people live in the big cities and their suburbs and exurbs, a minority lives in the rural countryside. The system with senators representing all the states equally means those rural states with low populations get more representation than the states with lots of big cities. Senators from New York, Florida, Texas, California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania add up to 18. Senators from Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Montana, Alaska, North Dakota, Idaho, Delaware and South Dakota add up to 18. This protects the people in those rural, sparsely populated, tiny states. It protects them from what? Financial allocations are made by the House of Representatives, not the Senate, and the House has representation proportional to population, but are those sparsely populated tiny states getting fewer federal dollars on a per capita basis compared to the biggest states? Isn’t the actual case that we face in the existing situation a tyranny of the minority, inflicting the policies favored by our rural population on the urban centers? Is that better than a situation in which the urban centers had proportionate power to shape policies? In what way? It’s a discussion that Ross isn’t going to have.
She also claims the difficult process of amending the Constitution is also made difficult to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Yes. I agree with her on this point. It should be difficult to amend the Constitution.
She claims that the electoral college encourages coalition-building. Back in the 1780s this was, of course, necessary, because people only knew local candidates, and in order to get policies through the Federal system you needed institutions to push people to build coalitions. But, since the invention of modern telecommunications and transport and mass media, we surely have natural incentives to form coalitions, and the usefulness of the Electoral College to achieve this end is questionable, and the need is simply no longer there.
She claims that the electoral college encourages national campaigning. The evidence is that it most manifestly does not. What Democratic candidate for president is going to waste time campaigning in the inter-mountain west, the high plains, or the deep south? There are a few states (Nevada, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina) where maybe the Democratic candidate can hope to win, but where else in those regions does either candidate need to campaign? And what Republican candidate is going to waste time and money on the Pacific Coast or the Northeast? Aside from New Hampshire, and Maine (where the state doesn’t allocate all its Electoral College delegates as one big bunch), no Republican needs to campaign in New England, and campaign stops in New York are more likely to be fundraisers than campaign rallies. In the face of this, how can Ross make the counter-intuitive claim that the electoral college encourages national campaigning, when it manifestly discourages this? She has two points: first, the swing states are scattered all over the country, and second, the swing states change over time, so good candidates will try to bring new states into the status of swing-states, and over time, various states will have opportunities to become important in national presidential campaigns. Well, her argument is therefore that “over the course of many years, the electoral college encourages national campaigning in several states scattered across the continent.” The counter argument, which she does not address, is that “abandoning the electoral college would instantly encourage national campaigning everywhere.” No wonder she doesn't carefully consider that alternative claim.
She points out that regional voting blocks will not provide sufficient electoral college votes for a presidential victory, and this forces presidential candidates to seek votes from beyond a single region of the country. This is not an argument that specially favors the Electoral College. No single region of the country has enough of the population that a presidential candidate could focus all their attention in one region to win a direct popular vote. With direct popular elections a candidate would have to seek votes all across the country, and not just in one or two regions.
She claims that in a campaign based on direct election of the president, candidates would probably campaign in areas of high population density, and restrict much of their campaigning to large states, neglecting small states like West Virginia, Iowa, and Montana. There is already in the existing system with the Electoral College no reason for Democratic candidates to campaign in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, or other small states like that, and no Republican is going to waste time trying to win in Delaware, Rhode Island, or Vermont. The Electoral College is achieving the exact evil she says would be effected by direct popular elections. It is true that candidates would probably campaign most vigorously in areas of high population density, but those areas (urban areas) exist in all the states outside of Vermont and New Hampshire. If we had direct popular elections, a Democratic Candidate would have a reason to at least make a brief visit or two in Boise, Idaho and Butte, Montana, and Fargo, North Dakota, and Birmingham, Alabama, and San Antonio, Texas. All places for which there is no strategic reason for any Democratic candidate to now visit or purchase advertisements. Likewise, with direct elections, Republicans candidates would visit Los Angeles and San Diego and the San Francisco Bay, and they would visit New York and upstate New York’s small cities, and Providence, Rhode Island, and Chicago, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington. These are all areas where no Republican currently has any reason to visit or advertise or campaign, but with direct popular elections, all of these cities would be important campaign stops. Also, in the current system, where candidates must visit swing states because of the Electoral College, are they going out to give their speeches in towns with fewer than 10,000 residents in Florida and North Carolina and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin? No, of course not. They advertise in television markets, which are based in cities, and they come to visit cities and large towns. With direct popular elections, even if candidates didn’t personally visit states where they would not win local majorities, they would need to organize active campaigns everywhere, because votes from everywhere would count.
She anticipates the argument that swing states get all the attention from candidates, and says that over time the swing states change. Yes, but how is it helpful to her argument to point out that over the course of decades a handful of new states become swing states and a handful of swing states become safe states? The fact is, in any single election year, only a dozen or perhaps a score of states are swing states where candidates need to do any campaigning. That is one (of many) problems with the existing Electoral College System. Saying that over the course of four or five election cycles about half of the states will at some point be decisive, even if in any one election cycle only a dozen or so are really decisive, is not a convincing argument in the face of the counter-claim that with direct popular elections all the states would be important in all the elections.
She says that the specific defeat of Gore was attributable “really because” a “safe state” (West Virginia) was considered a safe Democratic Party win, and the 4 electoral votes from West Virginia went to Bush because Gore had neglected it. There are so many reasons that Bush was installed in the White House despite the fact that Gore won the popular vote (even in Florida, as it turns out), that making a claim that this outcome was “really because” of some specific thing is just ridiculous. Maybe it was “really because” Gore didn’t stir up enough enthusiasm in his campaigning? Maybe it was “really because” Gore didn’t offer ideas about policies that really excited the Democratic base? Maybe it was “really because” the Supreme Court forbade Florida from recounting the ballots (which, after all the ballots were eventually counted from the whole state, showed that Gore had in fact won the vote in Florida). Maybe it was “really because” Gore didn’t campaign enough in his home state of Tennessee, and lost there. Maybe it was “really because” Republicans had stripped many minority voters (likely Democrats) of their voting rights in Florida. It’s laughable that Ross would argue that Gore’s neglect of a supposedly “safe win for Democrats” state in West Virginia while his opponent Bush cleverly campaigned in West Virginia because he recognized it had become a swing-state is somehow a argument in favor of the Electoral College. There were many states Gore (and Bush) neglected in their campaigns because of the Electoral College system. How can picking one of those states to point out that in one particular case a candidate was mistaken in neglecting the state be counted as an argument in favor of a system that had both candidates neglecting dozens of states? There are about 650,000 potential voters in West Virginia, and in a country where the popular vote has been won by fewer than 2 million votes in 2000 and 2016, a presidential candidate would need to campaign in West Virginia, even when there are 7 million potential voters in New York and 9 million potential voters in California.
Ross says the electoral college protects us from stolen elections. In a direct election, she claims, it might be easy for a solidly blue or red precinct to allow voter fraud, and such things could influence the national election. However, she claims, with an electoral college someone who wanted to steal an election would need to steal votes in a swing state, and swing states present more difficulties to the would-be election thief, since they are evenly-split areas, and they change from year-to-year. This argument has more merit than her other arguments, but it’s still not very convincing. Wisconsin and Michigan and New Hampshire were won by margins of less than 25,000 votes in 2016, and Florida and New Hampshire had close margins in 2000. In fact, in Florida in 2000, it may very well be the case that the election was stolen by the local Republican Party’s successful disenfranchisement of many legitimate voters through their administration of the election system (Republicans controlled the election system in Florida). It’s true that in a close national election where the victor has only a margin of a few tens of thousands of votes, the federal election system would need to be vigilant everywhere to the potential of vote stealing. However, with our current Electoral College system, a corrupt state government in a swing state could easily manipulate the election to provide their favored candidate with a few thousand extra votes, as probably happened in Chicago, Illinois in 1960, and probably happened in Florida, in 2000. In close elections where the winner takes all in the Electoral College, this poses a real threat to our elections, and in fact, twice in living memory unfair behaviors by local officials have influenced the national election outcomes. A national direct popular election of the president would reduce the risk of these sorts of abuses.
Okay, that’s why I’m not convinced by anything Tara Ross has said in her PragerU video. I’ll also add that my understanding of the Constitutional Convention and the Twelfth Amendment is that the electoral college was really instituted to give Virginia and other slavocrat states where humans were held as property a better chance to have its candidates win the presidency (and this worked well for Virginia). Also, we can use the National Popular Vote to correct the problems of the Electoral College.
In contrast to Tara Ross and her claim that the Electoral College was instituted to protect us from the tyranny of the majority or the problems of direct democracy, William C. Kimberling, at one time the Deputy Director of the Federal Election Commission National Clearninghouse on Election Administration has this to say:
A third idea [for a method of selecting a president] was to have the president elected by a direct popular vote. Direct election was rejected not because the Framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence, but rather because they feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would naturally vote for a "favorite son" from their own State or region. At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, the choice of president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones.
So that it. The electoral college was instituted because people wouldn't be familiar with national candidates, and it was also instituted to please states with very few people like Delaware and Rhode Island and Georgia (at the time) so they wouldn't always be dominated by presidents from Virginia or New York or Pennsylvania.
Finally, I refer my readers to a short video explaining the National Popular Vote movement.
Finally, I refer my readers to a short video explaining the National Popular Vote movement.