Though campaigning for the next presidential election has already begun, it’s not too late to clear up a few illusions left over from the last one. Contrary to what you may have heard, Al Gore did not win the popular vote in 2000. And the Electoral College, far from being a fiendish anachronism thwarting the popular will, is actually more democratic than any practical alternative.
Yes, when the Florida dust had settled, Gore had almost 51 million votes, and George W. Bush about a half million fewer. But that’s the national popular vote, and, constitutionally, there’s no such thing, notes Glenn, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University. Under the Constitution, there are 51 separate elections, and the candidate who assembles enough popular-vote victories in them to get a majority of Electoral College votes is the winner. That’s the federal method of counting popular votes, and it’s akin to the way the winner of the World Series is determined—by winning four out of seven games, not by scoring the most total runs in seven games.
The Founders were not hostile to popular election of the president, Glenn says. But they feared that the concerns of small states would get short shrift if popular majorities could be formed chiefly from the populous states and big cities of the Northeast. They deliberately devised the Electoral College system to favor candidates “who made broad appeals to all parts of the country and across the inevitable small state–large state, rural-urban, and agricultural–commercial conflicts of interest,” Glenn notes. Though the country is more urban now, the basic conflicts remain.
Even so, how can the existing system be more democratic? Because with a direct national popular vote, says Glenn, anyone with a sufficiently large following—including not only governors of large states but movie stars, rock musicians, ethnic partisans, and assorted others—would be tempted to run. “The reason is that 15 percent, 30 percent, or even five percent might win.” Many proposed schemes for reforming current practice provide for a runoff if no candidate gets at least 40 percent. But the existing system “already consistently gives us winners with more than that,” Glenn points out, and runoffs, as France has shown, usually attract fewer voters because disappointed followers of excluded candidates stay home. By forcing serious candidates to assemble popular majorities in the states, he says, the Electoral College encourages—and usually produces—greater voter support behind the eventual winner. “This makes democracy more broadly representative, more consensual, and hence more governable.”