Improving Our Democracy—the Electoral College

This piece ran in newspaper in late April, 2023.


If we believe in democracy — if we believe that all citizens should be given an equal voice in determining who will wield power in their government — then we are obliged to replace the Electoral College with a straight popular vote for President (just as every state elects its governor).

The original reasons for the Electoral College no longer make sense.

1) The Framers of the Constitution wanted to interpose some wise heads between the people and the selection of the President. The Electors — a presumably superior class of people, would make the final decision — would protect against the people’s being led astray by some would-be tyrant.

But it’s never been about “wise heads.” Almost always, each state’s Electors automatically vote for the candidate who has received the most votes in their states.

2) The other reason the framers put the Electoral College into the Constitution concerned the specific circumstances of the nation’s formation: namely, that it involved the unification of thirteen previously separate colonies. (Though they’d fought together to win independence from Britain, much of their identities was local.)

To take these newly independent “states” and make them into the “United States” required a variety of compromises. Prominent among these were to induce the smaller states – who were hesitant to join out of fear of being overwhelmed by the power of the larger.

One of those inducements has the continuing effect of giving the citizens of less populous states more power in choosing a President than their fellow citizens in more populous states.

Because of the circumstance involved in the formation of the union, the framers felt compelled to sacrifice some of the equality of citizens in order to grant greater equality of the states.

But a lot has changed since 1789. After generations of national experience, the citizens of this country are far more emphatically identified as Americans, and far less identified with their specific states than when the States first became United.

Historians have often noted a watershed in this uniting process: before the Civil War, people would say “the United States are” while ever since that time people say “the United States is.” From plural to singular.

It has become far less relevant to cater to the states at the expense of the rights of individual American citizens.

In sum, there’s no good reason to allow the Electoral College to distort “the will of the people” with its “winner take all” approach used by almost all the states.

The Electoral College, clearly, undermines our system’s ability to function according to our democratic sense of Justice, according to which all citizens should have an equal voice in deciding who wields governmental power.


No good  reason, not if we believe Justice essential to “the Good.”

Justice is what rational people would choose from behind a “veil of ignorance,” meaning how they’d arrange their world if none of them knew what position they will be assigned in that world. (Would anyone choose a slave system, knowing they were more likely to take their place as a slave than as a master?)

Democracy is such an arrangement, for it is rational for people to choose a power system based on equality (one person, one vote), and to set up an order that allows for conflicts to be settled non-violently (according to the Rule of Law).

But in the real world, we do know what our position is. And history shows it is a very powerful temptation for people to support an injustice that benefits them.

When it comes to the injustice resulting from the Electoral College, Republican voters confront that temptation.

They will – understandably — be tempted to support the status quo, because they know that it gives their side unjust advantages. They know that the present arrangement (with the Electoral College) gives the average Republican voter has a stronger voice in our presidential elections than the average Democratic voter.

They know that the two recent Presidential winners who lost the popular vote – W in 2000, Trump in 2016 – were Republicans.

(And they might understand that’s because the Electoral College has given greater power to the less populous states, Which tends to mean more rural, and nowadays
“more rural” correlates strongly with “more Republican.”)

So, not being behind any “veil of ignorance” – i.e. knowing that they benefit from this injustice – Republican voters will be tempted to prevent changes in the system that gives them powers to which justice does not entitle them. (And from all evidence, will readily succumb to that temptation.)

(“All evidence” – e.g. that in general people do not willingly surrender their unjust power, and that today’s Republican Party has been especially unconcerned about even-handed justice in any area, even where their power is not so directly at stake.)

But still there is the sacred ongoing task for Americans to form “a more perfect union.”

Which makes it worthwhile, I think, to call attention to the fact that, on the question of getting rid of the Electoral College, Republicans have a choice between what justice requires and their own partisan interest.

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