In the wake of the 2020 US election, there have been renewed calls to eliminate the electoral college and replace it with a national popular vote. The most common argument is that the uneven distribution of electoral votes among the states—based on the size of their delegations in the US Congress, composed of at least one representative and two senators, regardless of population—means that the candidate who receives the majority of the votes does not necessarily win the election.
According to its critics, the electoral college thus violates the fundamental principle of democracy—one person, one vote—as residents of small states have greater voting power than citizens in highly populated states.
Defenders of the electoral college argue that it is an integral feature of America’s federalist system, centered on separation and dispersal of power, as well as states’ rights. The electoral college gives small states a say in the direction in which the nation is going, and abolishing it would concentrate power in several voter-rich metropolitan areas.
The electoral college does violate the principle of political equality but the more fundamental question here is whether the majority should rule. By producing outcomes that do not always conform to the views of the majority, the electoral college propels minority opinions into national debate, highlighting the issues facing less densely populated parts of the country. By forcing candidates to appeal to the geographically broader and more diverse electorate, it prevents majority rule.
The Tyranny of the Majority
The majority is often wrong. For example, more than two-thirds of Americans support wealth tax, limits on campaign spending and higher K-12 funding. But this does not necessarily imply that these policies would be beneficial: wealth taxes are counterproductive, money does not decide elections and the problem is not the lack of K-12 funding but how inefficiently the funds are spent.
Theoretically, a candidate running on a majoritarian platform could win elections. But allowing a 51 percent or even a two-thirds majority to make decisions that negatively affect others is dangerous. This is the old problem known as the tyranny of the majority, a term popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville.
The majority can sometimes be wrong, while the minority is right. As Aleksander Solzhenitsyn argues, democracy is “catering to the rude majority. Pleasing the majority means: aligning with mediocrity, aligning with the lowest level, cutting off the thinnest tall stems.” When the majority determines what is right, opinions that do not conform to conventional wisdom or transgress established boundaries and accepted standards are stifled and suppressed.
That is why the Founding Fathers did not want America to be a democracy but a mixed government, a constitutional federalist republic, made up of democratic, aristocratic and monarchical components. The House of Representatives and popular elections provided the democratic element. The Senate (especially prior to the 17th Amendment) was the aristocratic component and the president was the equivalent of a monarch. Democracy, monarchy and aristocracy can lead to mob rule, tyranny and oligarchy respectively, as Aristotle argues. But combining the best elements of each system could create a government that was accountable to its citizens and deter tyranny.
This is why the Constitution was designed to make amendments difficult, so that fundamental rights like freedom of speech and equality before the law could not be overturned by a simple majority. Democracy can easily turn into mobocracy if the will of people is not restrained by constitutional checks and balances, decentralization and separation of power, and institutions like the electoral college.
The electoral college allows for the introduction of new, unconventional and unpopular ideas. It prevents the tyranny of the majority by making the opinions of the minority count. Because of the electoral college, candidates are forced to appeal to a broad and diverse coalition. There is a case to be made for such a system, even though it occasionally produces undemocratic outcomes, such as those Ross Douthat has recently cited: “the electoral/popular split of 1888 pointed the way to William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt’s national Republican majorities, and the near-splits of 1968 and 1976 pushed us toward Reagan’s nationwide landslides and Bill Clinton’s successful center-left campaigns.”
The Legacy of Trump
The fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 election—and did not even try to appeal to anyone outside his base during his polarizing and in many ways damaging presidency—has delegitimized the electoral college in many people’s eyes. But, for all the flaws of the Trump presidency and the destruction it caused, it directed our attention to the problems that had previously gone unnoticed.
Trump stress-tested America’s democratic system, which highlighted its weaknesses: from the presidential pardon system to executive overreach. America’s system of checks and balances is imperfect, and Trump’s actions have demonstrated which reforms are needed to avoid future abuses of power by potentially even more dangerous presidents with authoritarian ambitions, who may try to centralize power in their own hands.
The danger was not that America might have turned into a fascist dictatorship had Trump won re-election. The coronavirus pandemic provided a rare opportunity to centralize power, but Trump preferred to avoid responsibility. As Hannah Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the real problem is that incompetence, corruption and cronyism lead to the breakdown of democratic institutions, which causes honest, competent civil servants to retire from government, thus further undermining those institutions and making it easier for potential authoritarians to seize power.
Trump’s success brought the issues of political correctness and the negative consequences of globalization to the center of national debates. These problems had been neglected by both parties for decades. The electoral college is an integral element of an open society, an error-correction mechanism, revealing problems before they become too large to solve.
The Electoral College and Decentralization
The principle of human fallibility is a pillar of the case for decentralized governance. The majority is not always right, and it is important to address problems faced by minorities.
As Friedrich Hayek argues, it is impossible to centralize the “knowledge of the circumstances of time and place” that is essential to the process of decision-making, as it is dispersed among too many participants: individual understanding of our infinitely complex social reality is too limited and error-prone to empower the central government to make the decisions affecting people all over the country. In a free and open society, multiple players must therefore participate in collective decision-making: such players include municipalities, states, businesses, nonprofits, individual citizens and the federal government.
However, for all its benefits, the electoral college does not fit the realities of today’s political environment. In contemporary America, power is much more centralized than it was in the past. States’ rights have been eroded and the federal government’s power has continuously increased. The federalized and decentralized nature of the American system is evidenced by the fact that the electoral college was created because states—not people—were considered sovereign: states adopt the Constitution, and the states, not the people, elect the president.
In a decentralized country, federal elections do not matter as much as those at state and local levels, where most of the power over people’s lives is wielded. As a result, the fact that the electoral college violates the one person, one vote principle has historically been mitigated by the relatively limited importance of presidential elections.
The problem is that nowadays presidential elections—and the actions of the federal government—matter too much to too many people. Abolishing the electoral college would require a comprehensive constitutional amendment, something that is impossible in the current political environment, since the vast majority of Republicans and many Democrats, including President Biden, are opposed to the idea.
A better and more realistic way to reform the current system would be to recreate the environment in which the electoral college was founded: a decentralized system of governance in which the scale and scope of the central government are limited.
The Value of Polycentricity
What we need is not the preponderance of Washington, D.C. over states or vice versa, but equality in power, with the two sovereigns competing for the “people’s affection,” as the framers put it. As Alexander Hamilton writes, “the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments, and these will have the same disposition towards the general government.”
In a decentralized model, government officials are more directly accountable to their constituents and citizens are more capable of gaining what they truly want. Indeed, according to Gallup, only 35 percent of Americans trust the federal government, while 72 percent trust their local governments.
Nowadays, democratic institutions in most western countries (except confederations like Switzerland) are largely the means through which parties representing the interests of particular groups gain power. But what we need is a true government by the people—not by parties—in which people make decisions on issues that affect their lives. Decentralized, bottom-up, municipality-based governance, where the majority of issues are resolved locally, could provide an answer to the tribalism, polarization, gridlock and bureaucracy that characterize Washington, D.C. today.
America’s polycentricity—the existence of multiple competing sources of power and influence that balance each other out—is essential to the preservation and normal functioning of its constitutional democracy. Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the latest election were rebuffed by the courts: if America had a more centralized system in which a federal agency oversaw the election, it would be much easier to abuse that agency to change unwanted election results. The decentralization of power makes the task of overturning the election nearly impossible because there are too many actors involved: from the independent judiciary to state and local officials.
The electoral college, like the states, is a quintessential element of America’s decentralized system, in which power is dispersed as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, who aimed to mitigate the negative sides of democracy—mob rule and the tyranny of the majority—while utilizing its positives, such as the accountability of government officials to their constituents, responsiveness to the needs of the people, adaptability to changing circumstances and the ability to correct errors. We don’t need to abolish the electoral college: we need to decentralize government and empower local and state authorities instead.