We Americans live in a debased version of democracy in which basic parts of the federal government betray, by design, the principle of majority rule. Wyoming elects the same number of senators as California does, although Wyoming’s entire population is not much larger than the city of Fresno’s. When voting as a bloc, five members of the Supreme Court can negate any act passed by Congress; barring an unlikely impeachment, every justice, once confirmed by the Senate, remains on the bench until she or he retires or dies. To alter the framework of the Supreme Court or the Senate would require a constitutional amendment that the legislatures of as few as 13 states could prevent from being ratified.
Yet neither is the greatest insult to popular sovereignty. That would be the fact that it takes just 270 electors—individuals whose names are virtually unknown to the public—to formally decide who will be one of the most powerful human beings on earth. A candidate can win a plurality of the popular vote, as did Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, and yet the decision of who becomes president can still come down to a small set of electors in one or two states. And no minimum vote is required to win any state’s electoral votes: If a horrendously massive earthquake killed most Californians this fall, Donald Trump could legally win all of that state’s 55 electoral votes by edging out Joe Biden by a margin typical in a low-scoring baseball game.
Unlike with the other venerable pillars of our less-than-democratic order, most Americans have seldom thought the Electoral College worth preserving. Surprisingly, the very men who drafted the Constitution also had their doubts. The ungainly apparatus got welded into the document as a compromise between those framers who wanted Congress to pick the president and those who wanted to leave it up to state governments. The system they came up with was nobody’s first choice.
Over the past two centuries, Congress has repeatedly debated enacting major changes to the Electoral College or scrapping it; on a few occasions, lawmakers came agonizingly close to doing so. James Madison, the most influential figure in the drafting of the Constitution, was never fond of the Electoral College and sought to replace it with a national popular vote (which in his day, of course, would have been limited to white men). In nearly every opinion poll conducted from the 1940s to the present, majorities have favored switching to that simple and—ever since women and Black people got the right to vote—quite democratic alternative.
One of the chief virtues of Alexander Keyssar’s remarkable new book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? is that it conclusively demonstrates the absurdity of preserving an institution that has been so contentious throughout US history and has not infrequently produced results that defied the popular will. No presidential contest has ended up in the House of Representatives since 1824, when that body chose John Quincy Adams after a multicandidate race in which his nearest competitor, Andrew Jackson, won a plurality of both the popular and the electoral vote. But on four other occasions, fewer ballots were cast for the winner than the loser, and in the exceedingly close elections of 1884 and 1916, the switch of a few thousand votes in a single state would have handed victory to the less popular nominee.