Welcome to my series of myths/facts about our unique presidential system! There are many common misconceptions about our Electoral College. One such myth has to do with the nature of our presidential election system. Is it really undemocratic?
Please don’t miss the earlier installments here:
Myth: The person who wins the national popular vote should win the White House. The Electoral College does not guarantee such results and is thus undemocratic.
Fact: The question is not “democracy” v. “no democracy.” The question is “democracy with federalism” (the Electoral College) v. “democracy without federalism” (a direct popular vote).
What is federalism? Federalism is a reference to the fact that power in this country is divided between a single, national government and the state governments. The Constitution gives our national government in Washington D.C. power in certain areas. All other power is left to the states or to the people themselves. In the context of presidential elections, the states are the driving factor behind the selection of electors and the Electoral College vote. We don’t hold one single, national election for President. As the system operates today, we hold many separate elections, one in each state.
Think about it. Are we really kicking democracy entirely out of the process? In this country, Americans participate in 51 purely democratic elections each and every presidential election year—one in each state and one in D.C. This first phase of the election is what you think of as “Election Day.” These purely democratic, state-level elections determine which individuals (electors) will represent their states in a second phase of the election. Part Two of the election occurs in December—with much less media fanfare!—and is a federalist election among the states. There are 538 electors who participate in this election. A majority of them (270) can elect a President.
America’s unique blend of democracy and federalism has served the country well because it encourages presidential candidates to create national coalitions. A candidate must do more than simply rack up a majority of voters in one region or among the voters of one special interest group. He must appeal to a variety of Americans before he can win 270 states’ electoral votes. A direct popular election would not create the same set of incentives. Instead, the candidate who obtains the most individual votes—even if they are obtained exclusively in one region or in a handful of urban areas—would be able to win the presidency.
America is admittedly in a difficult spot now, where coalition building seems impossible. The good news is that we've been here before. In the years after the Civil War, the country was divided and angry. Presidential elections were close, and the map looked remarkably similar for a period of time. There were even two elections in which the winner of the recorded national popular vote did not match the winner of the Electoral College. Over time, however, the Electoral College forced these dynamics to change, helping to heal a stubborn divide.
Consider the political landscape in the late 1800s: Democrats were strong in the South, but those electoral votes were insufficient to earn the White House. By contrast, Republicans were strong in the North and the Northwest. They had enough electoral votes to win, but just barely. It was safer to seek out southern votes, too. Both political parties were forced to reach a hand across the political aisle.
Humans are stubborn, so it took a few election cycles. Nevertheless, the rift began to close. By the early 1900s, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt were winning in landslides.
The situation today is the same. The first party to once again focus on coalition-building will thrive.