Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, otherwise known as AOC, has returned to an old political foe: the electoral college. Throughout her history as a politician, AOC has criticized America’s presidential institution. Recently, she referred to it as a racist “scam.” Distressingly, many leading Democrats agree with her, and candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke have said as much on the campaign trail.
In reality, the founding fathers designed the vitally important electoral college for precisely the reason she seeks to abolish it: to protect the minority. In this case, a little education can go a long way. Perhaps AOC should seek some.
AOC took to Instagram yesterday to mock one of her least favorite institutions a bit. Filming out a window in a desolate stretch of highway with Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” playing in the background, she introduced herself.
“We’re coming to you live from the Electoral College. Many votes here as you can see — [it’s a] very efficient way to choose leadership of the country. I mean, I can’t think of any other way, can you?”
According to the Daily Wire, Ocasio-Cortez would go on to cite a March report from New York Magazine that challenged some of the common arguments for the electoral college. She then noted that the report was a message to “all the Republicans getting big mad [because] the electoral college is, in fact, a scam.”
Her chief complaint, perhaps unsurprisingly, fell along racial lines. “Due to severe racial disparities in certain states,” Ocasio-Cortez claimed, “the electoral college effectively weights white voters over voters of color, as opposed to a ‘one person, one vote’ system where all are counted equally.”
She also claimed “You may have heard this Electoral College argument the most: that families in suburbs [and] cities MUST have their vote suppressed in order to give rural votes a ‘fair shake.’ Could you imagine if we had this kind of democracy-altering ‘fairness’ provision for literally any other group? If we weighted, for example, Black [and] Indigenous voters more because of fairness.”
She closed her diatribe with a pithy epithet: “#FactsAreFacts, America. The Electoral College has got to go.”
Breaking It Down
Ocasio-Cortez’s claims are sincere, but they come from a very obviously ill-motivated place. Two of the last three times America elected Republicans, it did so without the support of the popular vote. Surely, AOC imagines, that result was unfair to Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and surely we would all be better off had either won the White House.
There is no question as it stands that Republicans benefit more from the electoral college than Democrats. But does that mean it’s a broken institution?
AOC claims the electoral college is a racist “scam.” And it is true that slave states were advocates for the electoral college at the nation’s founding. But they weren’t the only advocates. The federalists, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, were strong advocates for the system, and among them, only Madison came from a slave-holding southern state.
Get informed: two of the most foundational documents for the electoral college are Federalist Paper Number 10 and Federalist Paper Number 68.
The Electoral College’s Purpose
The Federalists had two major concerns which led to the foundation of the electoral college, as described in two of their Federalist Papers, Number 10 and Number 68.
Federalist No. 10
In Federalist Paper Number 10, James Madison, writing under the shared pen name Publius, discussed the dangers of the tyranny of the majority in arguing for republican government (as opposed to direct democracy, neither to be confused with the current political parties bearing those names, though the names themselves are significant).
“Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union,” Madison wrote, “none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”
A faction, by Madison’s definition, is “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
In other words, a “well-constructed Union,” in Madison’s view, a federal, republican one, would control those groups, whether majority or minority, who are united against the interests of other citizens or the community as a whole. Notably, Madison argues that this will be truer the larger a republic is:
“The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”
Put simply, larger republics are preferable because they will include more diverse viewpoints, more cultures, religions, and creeds, and less ability for any one of those to oppress any other.
Federalist No. 68
In Federalist 68, Hamilton argues more directly for the electoral college itself. Building off of what Madison argued, Hamilton stated that the electoral college was necessary precisely because of the grand calling of the presidency.
“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust [as the presidency] was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.”
The purpose of the electoral college originally was to appoint electors who would represent the people but also vote with their conscience and with their increased knowledge of the candidates. Of course, this predated the advent of radio, television, and the internet, so it was substantially more difficult for the common man or woman to get political information. Over time, this particular function of the electoral college has transformed, such that electors typically vote a straight party-line with the majority in each state.
But that transformation isn’t necessarily a good thing. And in fact, many on the Left hoped that electors might vote their conscience in turning against Donald Trump after the last election. They did not, because the institution in this particular aspect has become symbolic.
But the answer to that is not to abolish the electoral college but rather to reinvigorate it. The purpose of the electors, according to Hamilton, was to prevent the election of someone unfit for office. Hamilton argued poetically:
“The process of election affords a moral certainty, 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. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”
Some would say the electoral college failed in that by proceeding to elect Donald Trump. But once again, the solution is not abolition. The electoral college is endowed with great purpose, as is the president himself. A failure of the individuals in the institution is no warrant for the overthrow of the institution itself.
It is very popular to challenge the electoral college right now. Because Donald Trump is unpopular, and because he was elected without the popular vote, many claim the college is antiquated.
But the abolition of the electoral college would center the power of the electorate in coastal population centers. This would enact precisely the sort of dystopia Madison and the federalists sought to prevent, by allowing a metropolitan majority to dominate the adverse will of the middle of the country.
AOC’s argument that the electoral college unfairly restrains black voters is absurd. While African Americans make up just 12.6 percent of the total population, they account for greater than 30 percent of the electorate in Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, and more than 20 percent in five other southern states. Unfortunately, in many states, voter turnout limits the potential impact of minority groups in swinging the electoral college, but that is something no one can legislate against.
The electoral college is not perfect. And the founders knew this. But it’s the best system available for a task so significant. In 2019, we echo the words of Hamilton in Federalist No. 68 published just over 230 years ago: “hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of [the electoral college] be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.”