After complaining for months that our electoral process takes too long, now some commentators apparently want it to take even longer. Lawrence Lessig has written an article for The Washington Post saying that members of the Electoral College should ignore what they were actually elected to do, and should take it upon themselves to give the presidency to Hillary Clinton.
His argument is that since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, she is the “people’s choice.” Other commentators have made similar claims, and given the general angst and unhappiness that fills so much of the commentariat these days, we can expect this meme to float around for years to come. So let’s clarify a few points right now:
The Founders deliberately set up the country so that it would be extremely difficult for one bloc of states to permanently dominate the federal government.
1.) No one, including Hillary Clinton, was trying to win the popular vote. If the candidates had been trying to win the popular vote, almost everything about this election would have been different. The candidates might have picked different running mates. They might have emphasized different issues. They almost certainly would have campaigned in different states, run different commercials, and held different events. Does anyone think the Trump campaign would have largely ignored California and New York if he needed to win the popular vote? Of course not. He played under the rules as they are written in our Constitution — the same rules that governed the Clinton campaign — and he won. Trying to declare Hillary Clinton the winner because she won the popular vote is like saying that we should decide football games by which team has the most yards, or a baseball game by which team has the most hits. You could decide football and baseball games that way — and maybe we should — but we don’t. Similarly, we decide Presidential elections by Electoral College votes, not by popular votes — and we’ve been doing it that way since 1789. Trying to change the rules in the middle of an election would be bad enough; trying to change them after the election is an irresponsible attack on the whole political system.
2.) Now let’s look at that popular vote more closely. As of today, according to The New York Times, Hillary Clinton has 62,391,335 votes from all states. She has 1,969,920 votes from the five counties that make up New York City, and 1,893,770 votes from Los Angeles County, California. Donald Trump has 61,125,956 votes from all states, including 461,174 votes from the five counties that make up New York City, and 620,285 votes from L.A. County. In other words, Hillary beat Trump 3,863,690 to 1,081,459 in New York and L.A.; he beat her by 60,044,497 to 58,527,645 in the rest of the country. So Hillary’s margin in the popular vote rests entirely on her margin in two large cities — neither of which was contested by the Trump campaign.
3.) Of course, some people may think it’s fine to let New York and Los Angeles play such a large role in our presidential elections. And those people are entitled to seek a constitutional amendment to get their way. But it’s important to understand that we have very good reasons for our current system. The United States is not just a union of individuals — it is also a Union of States. (I’d have thought that the name “United States” gave that away, but apparently the point is too subtle for some observers and must be made more explicitly.) Under our system, the states are not merely provinces to carry out instructions from Washington; they are the building blocks of the nation, with legal power and meaning of their own. Back in the days when American children were still taught civics, they learned that one of the biggest problems facing the Founders was the issue of how to balance the interests of the large states and the small states. This is a brutally difficult issue with no perfect solution, and in the end we were left with a set of compromises. One of those compromises is that when it comes to the presidential election, we vote by states. The larger states have an advantage, in that they generally get more electoral votes than the small states. But the smaller states have an advantage in that the number of electoral votes they can cast is slightly larger than their percentage of the population.
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4.) I can understand that this compromise may not seem fair to people in New York and L.A. But does anyone really believe that New York and L.A. don’t already have a disproportionate impact on our government? They have the media, they have a huge percentage of the big donors, and they have major corporations and banks. Los Angeles County has 10 million people — approximately the same population as Georgia. Anyone who thinks that Georgia has as much influence over our national life as Los Angeles County simply isn’t paying attention. In other words, New York and L.A. already have a disproportionate share of influence — the Electoral College merely evens things out somewhat.
5.) The folks in New York and L.A. may not think this is fair to them — they may insist that in addition to their disproportionate financial, cultural, and social power, they want their full share of political power when it comes to picking the president. Again, they are free to seek a constitutional amendment if they want — but they should consider the possibility that the Founders have treated them better than they realize. It is in everyone’s interest to have a compromise that gives all parts of the Union a sense that they have a stake in the government. The moment Middle America feels that it can do nothing to influence Washington — that all decisions are made for a few big cities on the East and West Coasts — that’s the moment people start looking to leave the Union altogether. In recent years, Canada has had problems with separatism in Quebec; Spain has had problems with separatism in Catalonia; Scotland has threatened to leave the United Kingdom; and the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Meanwhile, we Americans have been spared these problems — in large part because of compromises that (usually) allow us to feel that the system treats everyone fairly. Tearing up those compromises, and putting the very future of the Union itself at stake, would be foolish for all concerned.
6.) It is particularly mistaken for the anti-Trump voters in the East and West coasts to take such a view today. For years, the U.S. economy has been organized in a manner that unfairly favored highly educated Americans, many of whom are concentrated in the nation’s largest cities. The wealthy people in places like New York and L.A. took those benefits, and then showed no sympathy for the steelworker who lost his job in Ohio, the Catholic nun worried about freedom of religion in Missouri, or the young military veteran looking for a job in West Virginia. One of the main reasons that Donald Trump will be the next president is that he was the only candidate in 2016 who made a plausible argument that he would govern on behalf of all Americans, rather than just a favored few with advanced degrees. In other words, if there was ever a time in American history where we can see why the smaller states and rural areas are at risk from being tyrannized by our largest cities, and why they need special protections in our Constitution, that time is now.
None of this is to say that Trump should disregard the voters in places like New York and Los Angeles. That would be a big mistake. George W. Bush should have tried harder to reach voters in the blue states; he didn’t, and it cost his party enormously. Similarly, Barack Obama should have paid more attention to people in so-called “flyover country”; he didn’t, and now his party is paying the price.
The Founders deliberately set up the country so that it would be extremely difficult for one bloc of states to permanently dominate the federal government; they intended national leaders to reach out to the whole nation, and not limit themselves to a faction, even a faction that represents a bare majority. So Trump should spend the next four years talking to Americans in New York, in New England, in Chicago, in Los Angeles, and the Silicon Valley — in all parts of the country where he faces significant opposition. He has outlined an agenda that should bring benefits for all Americans, and he should show that he cares about all Americans — including the ones who didn’t vote for him this time. But in the meantime, his opponents would be smart to spend less time complaining about our system, and more time trying to understand it.