It is fashionable in some quarters to half-way write off the election of Donald Trump by declaring the electoral result as an Electoral College victory for Donald Trump and a Popular Vote win for Hillary Clinton — as if we have a schizophrenic system of selecting our presidents. The implication of such announcements is that were it not for the malign persistence of the antiquarian Electoral College, the more modern single, national popular vote would have crowned Hillary Clinton as our president — and all would be well.
This in-the-bubble account does a disservice to our nation because it fails to understand our federal system of government. The Constitution established a federal union of states in which national leaders would be selected by the voters of each state separately. The other form of democracy is a unitary one, like modern France, in which a single national popular vote determines its president. Unitary democracies tend to be geographically compact with smaller and less diverse populations and economic interests not as varied. Federal systems, on the other hand, are designed to hold together vast geographic areas with widely diverse populations more or less integrated into economies that form complex mosaics.
Accordingly, to ensure the Constitution’s Preamble of securing “the common good,” our framers established a federal system of government that deliberately decentralized political power away from urban population centers and large states to more rural areas in states with smaller populations. Indeed, at the very beginning of our republic, the Constitution itself was devised by a convention of state delegations proposing a federal union of several states.
The document was then enacted after it was ratified by state-by-state votes. The federal Congress established by these framers was composed of state delegations in both the House and the Senate. At the top of this federal system was an Executive Branch whose leader, the president, was to be similarly selected in state-by-state votes ratified by the Electoral College.
The reasons for creating such a federal system, over a unitary one, are well-articulated by James Madison in Essay Number Ten of the Federalist Papers published in 1787. He started by noting the difficulty of giving all citizens proper influence over electoral outcomes in a country so geographically vast with so many competing interests among urban merchants, manufacturers, small town tradesmen, and yeoman farmers.
Some of these interests could be accommodated by population size, but many could not. Thus, a single unitary system would find elections determined by the citizens of populous cities alone, effectively disenfranchising people from these other less-densely populated, but equally vital areas and interests. Therefore, the way to break up these urban monopolies and redistribute electoral weights to all geographic areas and economic interests was to make elections state-by-state as tabulated by an Electoral College of states. In such an electoral system divided up by states, the outcomes of presidential elections would better reflect an e pluribus unum (“one out of many”). To eliminate the Electoral College, and its state-by-state electoral system, as some have recently proposed, would not only require a constitutional amendment but also would essentially gut our federal system of government.
All modern presidential candidates have understood this, and campaigned accordingly. If our system were unitary, American elections would be determined only by the votes of its largest cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, that, as Madison warned, would effectively ignore and disenfranchise the rest of our vast country. These cities can still control the Electoral College votes of their home states, but the federal system buffers ripple effects beyond these state boundaries.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton knew this, and targeted their resources of time and money to campaign according to the rules of the Electoral College system. In this competition, Donald Trump has won by 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232, a healthy margin of 14 percent, despite losing the national popular vote by 2 percent.
This was a result that shocked pollsters and pundits. In their TV sound bites and newspaper columns, they pointed to charts showing the latest swings in the national polls reflecting an overall national vote showing a slight lead for Hillary Clinton. Too little attention was paid to a more separate state-by-state analysis, as if the contest were all about winning the national, popular vote. This allowed pundits to pontificate in national terms about national mood, national demographic shifts, national voter enthusiasm, and the like.
While this was all obsessively interesting, it masked the determinative rules of the Electoral College. Future punditry on our presidential elections — and responsible citizen awareness — would do well to start from this foundation: The United States of America is governed by a federal system of states, and is not France.