Should rural and small-town Americans be reduced to serfdom? The American Founders didn’t think so. This is one reason why they created checks and balances, including the Electoral College. Today that system is threatened by a proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPV.
Rural America produces almost all our country’s food, as well as raw materials like metals, cotton and timber. Energy, fossil fuels but also alternatives like wind and solar come mostly from rural areas. In other words, the material inputs of modern life flow out of rural communities and into cities.
This is fine, so long as the exchange is voluntary — rural people choose to sell their goods and services, receive a fair price, and have their freedom protected under law. But history shows that city dwellers have a nasty habit of taking advantage of their country cousins. Greeks enslaved whole masses of rural people, known as helots. Medieval Europe had feudalism. The Russians had their serfs.
Credit the American Founders with setting up a system of limited government with lots of checks and balances. The U.S. Senate makes sure all states are represented equally, even low-population rural states like Wyoming and Vermont. Limits on federal power, along with the Bill of Rights, are supposed to protect Americans from overreaching federal regulations. And the Electoral College makes it impossible for one population-dense region of the country to control the presidency.
This is why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Instead of winning over small-town Americans, she amassed a popular vote lead based on California and a few big cities. She won those places with huge margins but lost just about everywhere else. And the system worked. The Electoral College requires more than just the most raw votes to win — it requires geographic balance. This helps to protect rural and small-town Americans.
Now a California millionaire named John Koza is trying to undo this system. He is leading and funding the National Popular Vote campaign. Their plan is to get state governments to ignore how their own citizens vote in presidential elections and instead get them to cast their electoral votes based on the national popular vote. If it works, this will be like getting rid of the Electoral College but without actually amending the Constitution.
California has already passed NPV, along with 13 other states plus Washington, D.C. Nevada, with six electoral votes, could be next. NPV only takes effect if it is joined by enough states that they control 270 electoral votes, which would then control the outcome of all future presidential elections. If that happens (NPV needs 81 more electoral votes), and if the courts do not strike it down, big cities will gain more political power at the expense of everyone else.
The idea that every vote should count equally is attractive. But a quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin famously reminds us that democracy can be “two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch.” (City dwellers who think that meat comes from the grocery store might not understand why this is such a big problem for the lamb.) And when you think about it, every check on government power, from the Electoral College to the Bill of Rights, is a restraint on the majority.
The Electoral College makes it even harder to win the presidency. It requires geographic balance and helps protect Americans who might otherwise have their voices ignored. All Americans should value constitutional protections, like the Electoral College, that remind us that the real purpose of government is to protect our individual rights.
Jon Gabriel adds:
Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with O’Rourke and Buttigieg, have signed on to this effort, despite it requiring fundamental changes to the Constitution.
“Every vote matters,” Warren said to a crowd in Jackson, Mississippi, “and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”
In 2000 and 2016, the winner of the popular vote didn’t claim the presidency. The fact that these aberrations favored Republicans isn’t lost on Warren, et al.
The Massachusetts senator argued that presidential nominees focus only on swing states instead of one-party states like California and Massachusetts. She wants candidates “to ask every American in every part of the country for their vote, not just those in battleground states.”
It’s a popular applause line, at least on the left. A recent poll showed that 60% of registered Democratic voters want to jettison the Electoral College, compared with just 20% who want to keep it.
While this might help one party’s near-term prospects, there’s a very good reason why America doesn’t choose its chief executive by popular vote. That’s because democracy, at least in its pure form, doesn’t work.
Sure, it might be a helpful tool for a group of friends deciding where to eat lunch, or a dozen board members choosing a new executive, but it’s no way to run a country.
The Founders knew this well, having read their classical history.
The world’s first democracy was ancient Athens, which allowed about 30,000 free adult male citizens to choose their leaders. They made up less than 15% of the population, but it was the most egalitarian political innovation to date.
It didn’t take long for the system to implode amid rampant corruption, an economic downturn, immigration headaches and unpopular foreign wars. (Sound familiar?) The plan of “one man, one vote” devolved into a kind of mob rule, the populace veering with wild swings of opinion. Voters overthrew leaders, exiled the unpopular, and executed generals and politicians — even Socrates himself.
As the saying goes, democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. The Founders looked to Athens less as a political model than an object lesson in what not to do.
James Madison said democracies are “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Therefore, America was set up as a republic, filled with countless checks and balances to avoid one group gaining power and using it to punish or exclude everyone they didn’t like.
Most people have a limited view of checks and balances, focusing on the president, Congress and courts. But the Founders created a system in which all sorts of groups strive against each other. Long-serving senators vs. representatives, the states vs. Washington, urban voters vs. rural voters — you name it.
Each of these checks incentivizes Americans to strive for their own interests while ensuring that no group is left out in the cold — at least not for long.
By distributing our presidential choice among 51 individual elections, nominees must appeal to a wide variety of voters with a wide variety of interests. Farmers in Wisconsin are important, as are retirees in Florida, factory workers in Pennsylvania and shopkeepers in Arizona. White evangelicals need to be courted in Charlotte, North Carolina, as do Latino Catholics in Mesa, Arizona.
If the Electoral College were abandoned, party front-runners would camp out exclusively in urban areas. The pancake breakfasts in Des Moines, Iowa, and Denver, Colorado, would be replaced with mammoth rallies in Los Angeles and New York City.
A candidate might visit Phoenix, but would they ever hit the tarmac in Tucson?
Moving to a national popular vote would destroy one of our foundational checks and balances: The interests of rural and small-town Americans would be abandoned for those of urban elites.
And can anyone fathom the tumult of a close election requiring a nationwide recount? Florida in 2000 created enough problems.
The Democrats’ most accurate argument against the Electoral College is that it’s undemocratic. But that’s the entire point.
We already have this in Wisconsin. Tony Evers is governor because of the vote totals of two counties, Milwaukee and Dane, which overwhelmed the rest of the state’s majority vote for Scott Walker.