Trent England is the vice president of policy at the Freedom Foundation.
The Electoral College is a profoundly democratic and appropriate way to elect the president. Changing to a national popular vote would make American politics more radical, regional, and corrupt.
In the final days of the Constitutional Convention, the Founders created a two-step, state-based election process known as the Electoral College. Democratic processes need rules, and that's exactly what the Electoral College is for presidential elections. It requires more than any simple majority of votes to win the White House. It forces presidential candidates and their political parties to build broad national coalitions.
Consider that both the Democratic and Republican parties have a presence in every state. Indeed the parties themselves are broad coalitions made up of millions of Americans. And each party enjoys strong support in a number of states. With the Electoral College, all this is essential. Presidential candidates have no choice but to reach out across the country.
As the campaign wears on, attention focuses toward the most politically balanced "swing states." Candidates cannot simply go where they are already popular and fan the flames of political radicalism. Instead, they must make their case to voters in the most evenly divided states.
A national popular vote would eliminate any need for geographic balance. A candidate could win based on intense support from a narrow region. It's happened before. In 1888, incumbent President Grover Cleveland won the most popular votes with huge margins in the Deep South, but lost the Electoral College and thus the presidency. Neither the nation nor the Democratic Party would have been better off with a popular vote system that rewarded and encouraged radical, regional politics.
Finally, because the Electoral College turns our national presidential contest into 51 smaller elections, it allows control over election processes to remain at the state level. Put another way, presidential appointees in Washington, D.C., do not run presidential elections, thanks to the Electoral College.
There is also no need for nationwide recounts. With the Electoral College, any question about the accuracy or integrity of the election is isolated within individual states rather than creating a national crisis. This was important in 2000, but it was critical in 1876. In that presidential election, results in three states were hotly contested. Racist and partisan vote suppression almost certainly was responsible for the popular vote majority for Samuel Tilden. Because the disputes were contained within particular states, Congress was able to sort the matter out. The vote fraud failed, and Rutherford B. Hayes won the most electoral votes and the presidency.
Some critics look at the elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000—when Al Gore's popular vote majority was just a little too narrow to win the Electoral College—as failures. Yet democracy is about more than just majority rule. The Electoral College is part of a constitutional structure that protects freedom—to speak, to worship, to vote. It protects these things even from impassioned majorities.
The Electoral College pushes presidential campaigns and political parties to build broad national coalitions. It focuses our politics toward the moderate middle rather than the ideological extremes. And it safeguards our election processes. It is part of the system that makes our democratic society possible.