Democrats resentful of Donald Trump’s election have been attacking the Electoral College on the grounds that it’s an undemocratic anachronism.
But before anyone rushes to replace it, they ought to consider that our federal government has always been a quasi-democracy, and that the alternatives may not be any better. There is no perfect method of electing a president.
Democrats haven’t been too happy, either, with what the two most recent, first-past-the-post, popular elections for governor have produced in Maine. Perhaps they envision ranked-choice voting for president. That would require a Constitutional amendment. The logistics would be daunting. The likely effect would be to Balkanize dissenting sections of the country. RCV hasn’t lived up to its hype in Portland.
The Portland Charter Commission proposed RCV to choose the new mayor position it created to ensure civil campaigns, to prevent a fringe candidate from winning, to ensure that the winner had the legitimacy of a majority, and to ensure a winner who would be able to get along with their counterparts.
Most of those rationales were contrived. Portland campaigns weren’t particularly negative and fringe candidates weren’t much of a threat, given Portland’s lack of ideological diversity. A manufactured majority is less legitimate than a straightforward one.
After five years, RCV has not produced the promised collaborator. Both elected mayors have had problems getting along with the City Council and city manager. The one thing RCV did do is make it that much less likely that a Republican would win elected office.
RCV’s failure to achieve its stated objectives in Portland did not restrain progressives from scaling it up. In November, Maine adopted RCV for the election of U.S. representatives, governor and state legislators. Now, similar interests want to abolish the Electoral College because they don’t like the result it produced.
As initially conceived, the Electoral College was a group of educated elites empowered to exercise their independent judgment in choosing a president and vice president. It was one of several, anti-democratic features of our republican form of government created by founders who were wary of factions and the masses.
Those features include a Bill of Rights that protects individuals from government over-reaching; a federation of states in which the central government has limited, enumerated powers and the remainder are reserved for the states; the equal apportionment of senators; a Supreme Court that accreted to itself the power of judicial review; and different methods of choosing, and terms for, the top positions in government, which makes it difficult to consolidate power.
The Electoral College has evolved into a more democratic institution over the years. Now, it is collection of agents who are bound to cast their ballots as provided by state law and popular vote. Even so, it still has an anti-democratic tendency to give states influence disproportionate to their share of the national population. Far from an anachronism, it is an integral part of the overall scheme of our federal government. We shouldn’t change it on the basis of one, or even two, elections.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.