How The Electoral College Could Finally Serve Its Greatest Purpose

There still are many good reasons to do away with the Electoral College, but this is its chance to defend its existence.
11/15/2016 02:54 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2016
Eli Christman

People who feel as if their vote doesn’t count are right and, thanks to the Constitution, they’ve always been right. The only votes that matter are those of the Electoral College because America is not a democracy — it is a representative democracy.

There has never been a greater opportunity for the Electoral College to express its value than now, no matter how improbable it is that it selects someone other than President-elect Donald Trump. It’s a fallacy that just because something has never happened before, it never will. Trump is the embodiment of that. Never before has someone who’s never served in the military or in politics been elected as president.

The Electoral College was devised in part because of the concerns of people whose faces are on America’s money. They didn’t trust everyone to make the right decision and sought a way to subvert the popular wish if that wish threatened the nation.

Alexander Hamilton was deeply worried about what would happen if everyone’s vote mattered. He wanted protection so that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

That moment is here. Even though the Electoral College has so far functioned the way the authors of the Constitution wished by ignoring what most people in the country want, its full function has not yet played out. The electors could choose someone else on Dec. 19 as America’s next president, and four have already said that they might change their votes.

That’s a scenario that even President-elect Donald Trump has agreed with. He has voiced outrage that someone could win the popular vote but not become president, the very situation he finds himself in now. Before the final votes were tallied during the 2012 election, it looked as if Mitt Romney could win the popular vote but lose electorally to President Obama. Trump was furious over a process that would allow that to happen so he vented on Twitter:

  • “a disaster for a democracy … a total sham and a travesty.”
  • “We should have a revolution in this country!”
  • “More votes equals a loss...revolution!”

That position put Trump in ideological alignment with his rival for the White House, Hillary Clinton. Sixteen years ago after Al Gore won the popular vote but lost electorally to George W. Bush, Clinton also called for the abolishment of the Electoral College: “We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago. I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

The Bush campaign had been preparing for the opposite. His advisers expected to win the popular vote but lose electorally, and they drafted plans to challenge the system and convince the electors to change their votes. “The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” a Bush aide told the Daily News. “We fight.” And they said this because there is a very real fight to be fought.

Since Trump lost the popular vote in this year’s election, he has reversed his position on the Electoral College, as he does with everything else when it suits his interests. Now, he says, the system “is actually genius.” He might change his mind yet again if the Electoral College addresses the constitutional concerns of the man on our ten-dollar bill.

Even though most pundits thought Trump had no chance of beating Clinton, many of these same people are now saying there’s no chance the Electoral College will reverse course. But of course there is a chance, no matter how slim. And there’s a long history of electors changing their votes. It’s happened 157 times and as recently as the 2004 election.

Millions of people have signed a petition calling for the Electoral College to change its vote from Trump to Clinton. Yahoo News reports that “another petition on similarly calls for more than 160 Republican electors to set aside their votes in states that don’t have laws binding them to do so: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. The petition has assembled a list of the relevant electors.”

Should any of these efforts — or the nationwide protests spawned by Trump’s win, or simply caring deeply about America — sway any of the electors, the likely outcome will not be a Clinton presidency. The most likely outcome is that enough electors change their vote so that neither Trump nor Clinton reach 270 electoral votes, which would leave the decision to the House of Representatives. That could mean Vice President-elect Mike Pence replaces Trump as president — and Trump seems to be aware of this possibility. Pence took over the presidential transition team from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It was said that this move was made because Gov. Christie is entangled in a political scandal but it also would ensure that Pence would be better prepared should the Electoral College turn against Trump in such a way.

A Pence presidency is not an impossible outcome even though it’s improbable and, should it happen, anyone who worships the Constitution as infallible would have to bow before it. They are, after all, the ones who have defended its righteousness against the popular outcomes for Gore and Clinton.

There still are many good reasons to do away with the Electoral College, but this is its chance to defend its existence and serve the purpose Hamilton and the other founders of this country saw for it centuries ago. That would help make America great again, especially for people who already thought it was — until this election.