One of the most common arguments defenders of the Electoral College make (other than that it protects small states) is that the institution protects us against the tyranny of the majority or against mob rule. The idea is that if our President were elected by a popular vote, it could lead to a form of tyranny in which a mob (in this case the mob is over 60 million Americans) elects a President who, once in office, works only of behalf of those who elected them and oppresses their opposition. Defenders claim that the Electoral College protects against this outcome because the nation’s 538 electors can theoretically ignore the mob’s desire, cast their electoral votes for a more just candidate instead. There are three primary flaws with this argument.
First, it is grossly inaccurate to label a popular vote for President as some type of tyranny of the majority because there is no monolithic majority. To be elected by popular vote a President needs widespread support from voters of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds from different places both geographically and ideologically. Any group of 60 million people is far too diverse, diffuse, and disorganized to constitute a mob.
Second, a democratic election for a head of state who does not have the power to create legislation and is checked by Congress and the Supreme Court is far from being a tyranny of the majority. A more accurate example of a tyranny of the majority would be a hypothetical state referendum in California in which the registered Democrats in the state voted to tax the registered Republicans at a higher rate. That would not only be cruel and oppressive, which are the most common words that come up in the definition of “tyranny,” but it is a clear example of a majority group directly imposing its will on a minority group. Furthermore, if electing a President by popular vote is a tyranny of the majority, then nearly every American in the country is currently living under a tyranny because our governors and mayors are elected by popular vote.
If there is any form of tyranny that actually exists in the presidential election, it is the tyranny of swing states, which is created by the current Electoral College system. Every four years citizens in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and a few other swing states have more influence over who becomes President than the vast majority of Americans who live in safe states. If the Electoral College’s defenders believe that a popular vote constitutes a tyranny, why isn’t it just as tyrannical for voters in swing states to impose their will on the rest of us? And when a candidate loses the popular vote but wins in the Electoral College, why isn’t that tyranny of the minority?
Finally, perhaps the biggest problem with those who defend the Electoral College because 538 electors can theoretically save us from a tyrannical mob, is that it rests on a flawed premise that the electors are more knowledgeable than the rest of us, and that they will act when necessary. People who argue this position often quote Alexander Hamilton’s defense, or perhaps more accurately, his sales pitch for the Electoral College in Federalist No. 68. Hamilton wrote that,
“This process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of president, will seldom 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.”
Hamilton believed that because presidential electors would be,
“men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation” who were “most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”
In other words, the Electoral College would prevent an unqualified or tyrannical candidate from reaching the presidency because the presidential electors would be discerning men making a careful judgement after thoughtful deliberation. Apart from the sexism, the system sounds pretty good. But it doesn’t exist. The Electoral College doesn’t work that way and it never has.
Presidential electors are not the best of their fellow citizens, chosen after thorough consideration, who exercise their independent judgment when casting their electoral votes. They are political party loyalists who almost always vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote within their state. Less than one percent of over 20,000 electoral votes have been from faithless electors and those electors have never affected the outcome of an election.
Hamilton’s description of the Electoral College is an interesting one; but as it works today, the Electoral College is not that deliberative body. It does not protect citizens from any tyranny of the majority. It actually makes it easier for a smaller minority to elect a President the majority of Americans oppose.