A lot has been said about the unfairness of the Electoral College for electing the U.S. president. But let’s think pragmatically. Fairness is not always sustainable, and this is one of the cases where I think that statement applies.
A common argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it protects the rights of small states versus big ones. Under this theory, it would prevent big cities from holding all of the control of the election process. Against this view, PolicyMic Pundit John Ford recently wrote a compelling argument. Also, the case for the unfairness of the system is very well exposed in YouTube by C.G.P. Grey who argues how the system can bring disproportionate results.
These arguments are reasonable, and the case for equal vote becomes more compelling every new election. Why would I still think the Electoral College is a desirable institution? Let’s take a look at other countries’ presidential elections and their results.
In Latin America, there is nothing close to the Electoral College. But studying the history of electoral politics in Latin American countries shows how unstable and unfair the direct vote can be. First, in Venezuela the direct vote has meant that a vast majority of the proletarianized population has imposed Hugo Chavez’ tyrannical democracy for over a decade, against the basic rights and protections of a marginalized and oppressed middle class that simply can’t create a winning coalition that includes the poor. Bolivia follows a similar pattern.
If we look at less dramatic cases, Mexico’s system suffers from weak legitimacy, because the president is rarely elected by a 50%+1 majority. Three parties contest the presidency every six years, and the result is that the president is elected by a little more than one third of the population. The losers are tempted to denounce the results as illegitimate, as it has happened twice in a row, causing revolts, protests and unnecessary civil disobedience. Mexico’s no-longer hegemonic party, the PRI, used to solve this dilemma by cheating, creating a false absolute majority. But this is not a desirable solution.
In many South American countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, etc. they solve this dilemma by the second round ballot, in which the first and second places contest in a final showdown. It permits a winner with an absolute majority and everyone is happy. France follows the same system. But the costs of having two presidential elections in a month time-period can only be imagined. Picture it in the U.S. and we would have the most expensive elections in history every four years, assuming that a third party will capture enough votes to avoid a 50%+1 result, like it almost happened in this election.
With the possibility of direct vote, imagine how many more people would prefer voting for the Libertarian or Communist parties, capturing that big enough 1% in a close race between the Democratic and Republican parties.
The second round was implemented in Latin America after almost two centuries of failed electoral presidential systems. One of the main reasons is the usually small difference between the winner and the loser, causing a lot of distrust in the process and the results.
This brings me to my pragmatic defense of the Electoral College: it permits a strong result; strong enough to dissuade the loser to accept the outcome, but not so strong as to become a dictatorship of the majority. And it does not need a second round ballot.
From the individual point of view it is unfair, especially for Californians whose votes count 1/4 of the vote of the citizens of Wyoming. But the system works, and the president wins with a strong coalition that allows him to do his job: to govern.
In countries with a direct electoral system, a margin of victory of less than two percentage points, like the one between Obama and Romney, usually causes a lot of distress and distrust; because, after all, the loser could have won. What made him lose? Bad luck? Destiny? Did the winner cheat? These questions are usually the cause for civil unrest, and not infrequently civil wars. How many times did France have to try before they built a stable republican form of government? I mean, not all developed countries have been so successful like the U.S. with regard to their republican constitutions.
Britain is no better case. The Head of State is hereditary, and the Head of Government is elected by the members of Parliament, a system even more indirect than the Electoral College. In few words, the Prime Minister is elected by a coalition of representatives who can flip flop whenever they want, such as in Italy and Germany. The people have no voice in the matter. Imagine the Speaker of the House acting at the same time as president, and there you have something like the British system. It can be said consistently that Britain is even less of a democracy than the U.S., if we take the direct election of the president to be the first principle of democracy, which is not, by the way.
The fairness of the Electoral College is indefensible. It’s not a fair system. But then, there is more of democracy than fairness. Democracy must be stable, on one hand; but a good democracy must avoid the tyranny of the majority, on the other hand. John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861) tried to device a system that synthesizes both ends, by giving more votes to educated people than to the poor and uncultivated. He was not being classist; he was trying to avoid the tragedy that Venezuela and Bolivia live today. His system was never really tried. Maybe he should have looked across the Atlantic Ocean, and into the U.S. There he would have found his answer: the Electoral College.