Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently inspired fresh debate over the hoariest of institutions, the Electoral College. "Every vote should be = in America," she tweeted, "no matter who you are and where you come from. The right thing to do is establish a Popular Vote. & GOP will do everything they can to fight it."
On cue, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, protested: "Abolishing the Electoral College means the politicians will only campaign in (and listen to) urban areas. That is not a representative democracy. We live in a republic, which means 51% of the population doesn't get to boss around the other 49%."
In Crenshaw's world, apparently, democracy works better when the 49% chooses for the other 51%. Indeed, The New York Times' Nate Cohn calculates, President Donald Trump could win reelection in 2020 "while losing the national vote by as much as 5 percentage points."
Political parties and 50 states
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines democracy as "government by the people," implemented by the "rule of the majority." But the word "democracy" appears nowhere in our foundational document.
Too often, we regard the Constitution as a repository of timeless wisdom. Far better to understand it as a remarkable but flawed product of its times. For within are embedded a series of awkward compromises that, after 232 years of national evolution unimaginable to its draftsmen, frustrate democracy as we now conceive it.
A few obvious facts explain this: The Founders did not imagine political parties. In apportioning representation by population, they acceded to Southern demands that slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person. Yet, like slaves, women did not vote.
That long ago America had 13 states, not 50. Our Founding Fathers, many slave owners themselves, were men of property who feared popular democracy. They could not anticipate the vast and varied America we now inhabit; the evolution of our social philosophy; or the needs of a diverse society for a government responsive to its people — all of which, one can reasonably imagine, many would have regarded with something akin to horror.
No longer free from 'sinister bias'
Which, of course, brings us to the Electoral College. If ever there was an institution rooted in the then, not the now, this is it.
Start with Alexander Hamilton's premise that the electors would be "free from any sinister bias" — a notion swiftly undone by the inevitable rise of political parties. The college itself was designed as a compromise between empowering Congress to pick the president and choosing him by popular vote — which, at the time, would have ruled out awarding more electoral votes to Southern states by counting fractional slaves. Unable to anticipate a 50-state America defined by demographic sorting, they bequeathed constitutional architecture that mocks Crenshaw's "representative democracy."
Some defenders argue that the college creates "stability" by creating a "majority" of electors, others that it requires candidates to win over rural America. This sentimentalizes the Founders' horse-trading while dismissing its present impact.
To start, the Electoral College violates the principle of "one person, one vote," in which the votes of all Americans count equally. It renders irrelevant the votes of people in states dominated by one political party. It confines presidential campaigns to a handful of states where either party has a chance of winning.
From a onetime Romney strategist: Kill the Electoral College to help America and, yes, Republicans
Popular mythology notwithstanding, it does not force candidates to seek votes in rural states or districts. Only 35% of eligible voters live in the battleground states where almost all spending and campaigning occurs, and most of them are not small or predominantly rural.
Finally, twice in the past five elections, it gave us presidents spurned by a majority of Americans. Small wonder, then, that President Donald Trump is laser-focused on turning out the minority of voters who are his base: It worked for him the last time, and may well again.
The Senate is even worse
Yet there's another remnant of constitutional vote-swapping that makes the Electoral College look like a plebiscite: the U.S. Senate. In practice, the Senate upholds all the supposed virtues of the Electoral College, privileging small states and overrepresenting rural areas. Its very existence operates as a bulwark against urban dominance and, therefore, as a compelling argument against the supposed necessity of preserving the Electoral College.
That it empowers America's open spaces with a vengeance reflects a further remnant of small state leverage: Equal representation in a co-equal branch of Congress, two senators for every state, was their price for signing on.
At the time the Constitution was written, the ratio between the most and least populous states was a paltry 12 to 1. Thirty-seven states and more than two centuries later, the population of California is 69 times that of Wyoming. In 2016, half the country lived in just nine states with 18 senators. The half living in the other 41 states had 82 senators — and in about 20 years they'll likely have 84.
What did America writ large get in return for this trade-off? Not the disinterested body that our Founders fondly imagined, free from unruly political passions. Today's Senate is polarized between underrepresented blue states and overrepresented red states, allowing partisans from unpopulated states to help strangle popular legislation. It is, in short, a satrapy for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Does anyone truly believe that the Founding Fathers — transported to 2020 — would insist on this design? It's easier to imagine California and New York as separate countries, blissfully free of governance by Wyoming and Alaska.
But here we are, compelled to live with a Senate that the amendment process preserves in perpetuity. How? By requiring that any constitutional amendment be approved by two–thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states, our Founders gave underpopulated states virtual veto power over any amendment deemed contrary to their interests.
America's contemporary problem is not too much democracy but too little. Even in terms of its supporters' best arguments, the Electoral College is constitutional excess. It should go.