The Electoral College met on Monday to cast the decisive votes in the 2020 presidential election. This year’s vote was not without controversy, a reality that has engulfed the constitutionally mandated election system since its founding. To further undermine the institution, this year Colorado voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an end-run around the Electoral College that includes a total of 15 states and the District of Columbia.
Should the quadrennial rite of electors selecting our president continue for another election season, or should U.S. citizens choose the president via the popular vote? That question lies at the heart of Safeguard: An Electoral College Story, a documentary directed by M.A. Taylor and currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime. The movie covers 231 years of American history in 86 minutes, touching on the finer points of civics, social history, and logic along the way.
The Electoral College reflects the Founding Fathers’ innate distrust of remote and imperious government, at home or abroad. Rather than hand power to an undifferentiated mass of national voters, the American people jealously reserved power for themselves at the state and district levels. “Why would you be fighting a revolution against distant, unaccountable authority and then trying to create a new distant, unaccountable authority?” asks Kevin Gutzman, professor of history at Western Connecticut State University.
One of the documentary’s legal experts underlines the novelty of such a system by quoting Lord Acton. “Separation of powers had not been the norm of history,” said Bradley A. Smith, professor at Capital University Law School. Montesquieu’s insights embodied “the recognition that if you wanted to control power, you couldn’t let one person sit in every capacity. [The framers] always say, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ so you divide the power up.”
Holding 50 separate state elections spares voters the horrific logistical issues virtually demanded by a national popular vote. The 2000 Florida recount, “as bad as that was … was really just about one important state,” says Robert Alt, president and CEO of The Buckeye Institute. Nationwide recounts “would create, quite simply, chaos.”
Safeguard highlights what it sees as an important benefit of the Electoral College: It forces candidates to moderate their positions to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. It cites Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy when, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he cast the party as a tent broad enough to include moderates and even bona fide conservatives like South Carolina’s Bob Conley, a Democrat who supported Ron Paul. (Once safely installed in office, the Blue Dogs tend to get chained to a free-spending, government-expanding agenda.) However, as Dean’s efforts focused on the legislative branch, these examples are not immediately applicable.
Two-time Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes proved more persuasive. Forbes reflected that the hope of winning “the Electoral College would force you as a presidential candidate to have to put together a national coalition. You couldn’t do it winning one popular state, or [as] a sectional candidate, or a special interest candidate. You had to bring together diverse groups.” The Electoral College’s unifying system generally rewards candidates who “try to bring people together rather than trying to finds ways of dividing and trying to inflame passions.” In that sense, it fulfills the words of the Psalmist, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133 :1).
Ironically, a national popular vote does a worse job of reflecting the national consensus than the Founders’ system. As I wrote in 2016:
While a popular vote majority may appear to represent the vox populi, such a victory can be deceptively decisive. It is possible for a candidate to carry all of Alaska’s 501,515 registered voters, lose every other state by 10,000 votes, and still win the election. Could such a mandate be said to represent “the national will”? A popular vote would be the one case in which the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.
Foreseeing such a demagogue, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68, “Talents for low intrigue … may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require … a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.”
The documentary does its most important work while demonstrating that the Electoral College protects minority rights. After dispatching the myth of the three-fifths compromise, it notes the value of federalism writ large, illustrating how abolitionism and women’s suffrage movements percolated upward from the states, the nation’s 50 laboratories of innovation. Safeguard notes the defining difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic: As Princeton historian Allen Guelzo says in his sonorous baritone, in a constitutional republic “the majority usually gets its way – but not always.”
The Constitution erects a rampart around minority rights that no majority can cross. Likewise, the Electoral College requires candidates to grapple with the full diversity of the nation’s electorate – including differences between states. The Constitution “decentralized those votes to recognize that states are different,” says Michael Maibach, a distinguished fellow at Save Our States and an Acton Institute author. Maibach offered an insightful illustration of how the constitutional election system works. “You can think of the World Series the same way,” he said. The winner is “not who gets the most runs in seven games; it’s who wins the most games.” Constitutionalists should remember this important rejoinder when civic revolutionaries cite such irrelevancies as the “Senate popular vote” to undermine confidence in the Founding Fathers’ system.
The constitutional election system forces would-be officeholders to look after the interests of a neglected, misunderstood, and despised minority: rural voters. “Without the Electoral College,” says J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, “the presidency would be decided” in “urban corridors” like “Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.” The end result would echo the charge of “taxation without representation” raised by the original 13 colonies.
That formula presages social disintegration. “If you change how presidential elections work, you essentially nullify the constitutional process, rip state lines up from presidential elections, and create this environment where huge swaths of” Americans “could just be left behind,” says Trent England, executive director of Save Our States and author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College. “If we start ignoring and writing off huge swaths of the country, we are destroying our country.”
Pope Francis warns of the same phenomenon in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. “People get caught up in an abstract, globalized universe,” he writes. “The local has to be eagerly embraced, for it possesses something that the global does not: [I]t is capable of being a leaven, of bringing enrichment, of sparking mechanisms of subsidiarity.” He specifically states that this must apply to “different regions within each country,” where “the inability to recognize equal human dignity leads the more developed regions in some countries to think that they can jettison the ‘dead weight’ of poorer regions.”
Consider that an unintentional imprimatur for our federalist Electoral College, a system that Safeguard capably defends.