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Electoral College Counterfactuals


Electoral reform has been one area where the cumbersome amendment process established by Article V hasn’t been a huge barrier.   With the unusual exception of the 14th, the bulk of the substantive rights and procedural changes contained in the post-Bill of Rights amendments have dealt with elections: various expansions of the franchise, cleaning up the succession process, term limiting the president, etc.    The electoral college, however, despite its irrationality and the fact that the election of 1800 seemed to establish a norm that the president should be a close to popularly elected as the rules allow, has persisted.   I’ve wondered for a while if this is the result of the fact that the most obvious democratic travesty* produced by the Electoral College — the election of Lincoln in 1860 when any good electoral system would have awarded the election to Douglas — luckily happened to work out extremely well.    Had defects in the electoral college led to a war to expand slavery rather than a war to end slavery, I wonder if it would have remained in place.   Similarly, had Kerry won another 120,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 (and hence won an election he would have lost if the country had an electoral system that met modern democratic standards) there may have been enough bipartisan opposition to the electoral college to make it vulnerable.    But it didn’t happen, so it continues to lay around like a loaded weapon waiting for another undemocratic outcome as bad or worse than 2000.

*As Matt points out, of course the 1860 was only a travesty of democracy when you accept the undemocratic rules that defined the electorate in 1860; in this case, the electoral college actually produced a more democratic result in the modern sense.   But this was also a fluke — for most of its history, the electoral college had favored the slave power.

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