The President-elect was fond of claiming before election day that the system was rigged. Pundits wrote this off as a preemptory rationalization of his impending loss, but perhaps he was just prescient. Maybe he understood better than the rest of us that the choice of American Presidents by the electoral college is inherently undemocratic and that he would exploit that rigged system. In the end the loser would win and the winner would lose.
Official tallies are not ready yet, but it appears that the President-elect got about 1.25 million fewer votes than his opponent. That is more votes than the total number of voters for President in Maine and Vermont combined. Essentially the system disenfranchised the plurality of voters and gave extra weight to those in the minority.
Apologists for the outcome of the election have tried to suggest that there is some noble principle in the electoral college system for choosing Presidents. The system somehow reflects the value to the Republic of State sovereignty and the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution. This is a naïve reading of the history of the Constitutional Convention. The electoral college system was raw political compromise. Larger northern states’ delegates favored direct election of the executive while smaller, mostly southern states favored election by the Senate, which would have made the process even more undemocratic. The compromise was a simple “back-room deal,” the kind with which our President-elect claims to be so well acquainted.
Collier and Collier in their 1986 history of the convention of 1787 say of the deal, “We must understand, then, that the American electoral college system of choosing a president is a Rube Goldberg machine. It was jerry-rigged out of odds and ends of parliamentary junk pressed together by contending interests. And the question that inevitably comes up is whether it ought to be abandoned.”
We have now had five elections where the President was chosen by the electoral college after gaining less support among the people than his opponent. Three of these were in the 19th Century and two in the past 16 years. Never before have over a million voters had their preferences so ignored.
The real problem with this outcome is what it says to people about participating in our democracy. It would be natural to ask now, why should I vote if my vote will not count? How can we expect the people to accept the outcome of Presidential elections if the majority is ignored because of a 229 year old political compromise? Where is the legitimacy of our democracy if the loser wins and the winner loses?
Collier, J. L., & Collier, C. (1987). Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York: Random House.
Update December 12 — I couldn’t say it any better than Paul Krugman in the Times