An effort is underway, in these opening days of the 2019 Legislative Session, to commit Colorado to an inter-state compact agreeing to elect the president of the United States by national popular vote, rather than via the current Electoral College system. It is an idea that is resurrected roughly every four years, generally by members of whichever party happened to lose the presidential election.
The current efforts, which have been simmering since November 2016, have taken on a bit of extra fervor, not only because the beneficiary of the last meeting of the Electoral College happened to be Donald Trump, but because it resulted in a paradoxical situation not confronted for a while – the presidency going to the candidate who received fewer votes than the loser. Given the tenor of that election, and of ever since, it’s not surprising that a fair bit of partisan rage would be exacted on the mechanics of the system. This is an effort being directed at Trump in much the same spirit as the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, was directed against Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Democratic Party, true to its name, has generally always tended towards democratist absolutism, adhering religiously to the one-man-one-vote maxim, and it would be unfair to suggest that opposition to the Electoral College was entirely divorced of that principle. But, like most proposed electoral reforms, this one is more political than philosophical. Enthusiasm for the democratic imperative wanes (from either side) once the popular will teeters opposite the desired direction. Liberals in this country have been doggedly unsupportive, for instance, of delegating questions of moral or social concern – abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. – to the individual states, where the popular will as expressed by the legislatures was unlikely to generate the right results. Instead, the left has placed much hope and faith in the transformative abilities of an activist judicial system, which creates scenes of apocalyptic panic every time a Supreme Court seat becomes open during a Republican administration. It’s to the point where if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health does take an unfortunate turn, we may very well see a suspension of liberal opposition to public prayer.
The game is played by both sides, of course. Conservative resistance to absolute democracy and plebiscitary whim dates back at least to the end of the 18th century when the bloody excesses of the French Revolution were being witnessed in horror by the likes of Burke. Still, that does not stop a Tory, Conservative, or Republican from appealing to the “will of the people” when that will is conducive to a favorable outcome. People are funny that way.
Which is precisely why institutions like the Electoral College were established. The genius of the American constitutional system is encapsulated in the phrase “checks and balances.” The architects of the American Republic were prescient enough to perceive that democracy, too, needed to be held in check, lest Alexis De Tocqueville’s fears of the young nation descending into a “tyranny of the majority” come to fruition.
As a practical matter, they recognized that, especially as the nascent republic grew, there existed a very real possibility that smaller states, like Rhode Island, could find themselves at the mercy of larger, more populous ones, like New York. At the same time, they saw the folly in entirely disenfranchising large population centers. So the people were represented, by population, in the House of Representatives, and the states, on an equal basis, in the Senate.
But how to go about electing the chief executive? The Electoral College was thus formed, representing a compromise granting each state initially equal standing, while still taking into account population differences.
In this way they avoided the types of problems experienced to this day in Canada, where the parliamentary system all but seals the fate of national elections by the time polls close in Ontario and Quebec, where the bulk of the nation’s population resides.
So there are practical benefits to Colorado for maintaining the Electoral College. Los Angeles County, for example, is home to about double the number of people who live in our entire state. Similar figures can be applied in respect to New York or the Chicago area. To look at it another way, there are fewer people in the states of Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota – combined – than there are in California. Colorado accounts for less than 2 percent of the nation’s population; California, New York, and Texas alone make up more than 25 percent. Absent the Electoral College, Colorado courts irrelevance on the national political scale.
It would seem patience is in order, rather than a rush to dismantle the final check on the plebiscitary dominance of urban concentrations. For given the tightness of the margins, it wouldn’t take much of a tectonic shift in voting to trigger a re-examination of the current enthusiasm for the popular vote.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.