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'Majority rules' insufficient electoral principal

Electoral College-3

The American flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol dome at sunset on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Last week we wrote about Democratic ambitions to pack the Supreme Court. This week the Electoral College is on the chopping block as Senator Elizabeth Warren comes out in favor of its abolition, Beto O’Rourke makes sympathetic noises and Colorado’s Democratic governor signs a bill adding his state to the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.” Scrapping the system the U.S. has used to select Presidents since its founding will likely soon be the Democrats’ default position.

Like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College sometimes frustrates the will of political majorities. That makes it an easy target in this populist age. But while “majority rules” has always been an appealing slogan, it’s an insufficient principle for structuring an electoral system in the U.S.

Presidential elections often do not produce popular majorities. In 2016 neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump won 50%. “Plurality rules” doesn’t have the same ring to it. In the absence of the Electoral College, the winner’s vote share would likely be significantly smaller than is common today. Third-party candidates who can’t realistically win a majority in any state would have a greater incentive to enter the race.

Democrats are upset that Mr. Trump is President with 46% of the vote to Ms. Clinton’s 48%. What if a Republican was elected with a third of the vote in an election featuring five formidable third-party candidates? A free-for-all plebiscite would hurt the system’s legitimacy. The Electoral College helps narrow the field to two serious contenders, as voters decide not to waste their vote on candidates who have no chance to win.

The founders designed the Electoral College to help ensure that states with diverse preferences could cohere under a single federal government. Anyone who thinks this concern is irrelevant today hasn’t been paying attention to the current polarization in American politics. The Electoral College helps check polarization by forcing presidential candidates to campaign in competitive states across the country, instead of spending all their time trying to motivate turnout in populous partisan strongholds.

In a popular-vote contest in 2020, for example, the Democratic candidate might ignore the economically dislocated areas that Mr. Trump won and focus on urban centers along the coasts. Mr. Trump might campaign more in upstate New York or Texas but ignore urban voters.

The Electoral College also contributes to political stability by delegating vote-counting to the states and thus delivering with rare exceptions a faster result. The uncertainty arising from a nationwide recount for President amid myriad regional irregularities — as happened in North Carolina and Florida in 2018 — would make Florida 2000 look tame.

The Electoral College abolitionists are unlikely to get a supermajority of three-fourths of states to agree to pass a constitutional amendment. The greater danger is the popular vote compact that Colorado has joined, which requires signatories to ignore their voters and grant their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. It goes into effect once states representing 270 electoral votes have signed. If the governors of New Mexico and Delaware sign their states’ bills as expected, then 14 states and the District of Columbia with 189 votes will have signed up. A Democratic sweep at the state level could one day get to 270.

The pact is likely unconstitutional. But if it succeeded it would inject more corrosive uncertainty into American elections in pursuit of a hyper-populist system that goes against the structure of the Constitution that has protected liberty for 230 years.

The Wall Street Journal

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Humans of Greenville

@HumansofGville

Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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