The virtues of an undemocratic system
The Electoral College is a system that does not function as it was intended, gives disproportionate weight to certain states, and, quite frankly, is undemocratic.
Why would anyone support it? A system based purely on popular vote would surely be better. One person, one vote.
Indeed, after the 2016 election saw the winner of the presidency lose the popular vote, countless people were calling for exactly such a change, saying that a popular vote would be a more just system. The consequences of dissolving our current system in favor of a straight popular vote, however, should give us pause—particularly as Catholics. For while the Electoral College may be an imperfect system, it does help protect the common good of different communities.
It is the responsibility of civil authority to promote the common good “without favoring any individual or category of citizen,” as Pope John XXII writes in Pacem in Terris. The common good of all communities is to be protected. In a representative government such as ours, we communicate the needs of our communities to the government through our elections. Our mayors focus on issues that are important to our towns. Our legislators work on bills that will aid our schools, our businesses, and our families.
In its local form, government is designed to serve the common good of the varied, but still smaller, communities for which it is responsible. Government at a less local level is charged with the same responsibility despite having more communities to care for and perhaps facing more challenges in doing so. As voters, however, we can share some of the responsibility for furthering the common good. We vote for policies that will help us and our neighbors. We advocate for funding to our community programs and bring attention to issues impacting our families—issues that are not the same across the nation. Border cities in Arizona have different needs than a West Virginian coal town. The Electoral College is a means of recognizing the goods of different communities without favoring any individual or category of citizen.
The Electoral College recognizes these goods by giving voice to issues not just on an individual level, but also on that of a community. Electoral votes are won at the state level, the outcome of which—in some states—is determined not just by popular vote within the state, but by winning a majority of the state’s counties. Thus, the voice of the individual can be heard, the voice of the local community can be heard, and the voice of the state at large can be heard. Candidates for president need to be cognizant not just of the needs of the most heavily populated areas, but also of communities of different types and with different interests.
If the United States were to ditch the Electoral College for a popular vote, we would see an erosion of the protection of the common good for different communities. Politicians would cater to the goods of only the most populated cities. No longer would the needs of small-town, rural America be spoken of on the national stage. In a popular system, the prioritized issues would be those that concern the largest population centers: the coasts.
Proponents of the popular vote system will say that this is only fair—if more people are served by a policy, that should be the policy that is focused on. But that view fails to embrace the responsibility of civil authority in its failure to give due consideration to the common good. For the common good is not simply the aggregate of the most prevailing individual goods. It takes place on a community level. Remove the Electoral College would mean removing the community-based aspect of presidential representation. Countless groups of citizens that have different needs for their communities are overlooked.
But are groups of citizens, distinguished by their communities, truly as important as individuals? One of the largest rallying factors for critics of the Electoral College is its undemocratic nature. The merits of the popular system are rooted in equality: every person has an equal voice, regardless of where they live. This is equal representation. This is the democratic ideal. Yet, to ignore the needs of groups of citizens is not consistent with the equality that the popular vote system stands for. No one can claim that the needs of the few poor should be ignored in favor of the needs of the many middle class. The needs of the poor are not relevant only once enough people are poor. As a society, we recognize that the size of your community does not determine the merit of your voice. We value protections that ensure the common good of less popular communities. We have safeguards against the tyranny of the majority.
While a pure popular vote system may be rooted in equality, it prioritizes equality of the individual over any concern for the common good of communities. The Electoral College, on the other hand, allows for this representation: of individuals, of communities. It is a means by which the government can strive towards its civil responsibility of promoting the common good, not just of the individual, but of all categories of citizens. On its face, it does appear quite undemocratic. The Electoral College is not consistent with the democratic ideal of one person one vote. But the Electoral College is consistent with an end to which democracy is oriented: protection of the rights of its citizens. The Electoral College is consistent with the responsibility of government in its promotion of the common good.
The Electoral College does not, however, guarantee that the view of the West Virginian coal town will be represented. Nor does it guarantee that the common good will come into effect. It does make it much more likely that issues important to different communities and different populations will be a part of the conversation. It does lend itself to serving the common good more than a system of pure popular vote.
Holly Bahadursingh is a senior studying political science, among many other things. She can be reached at Holly.Bahadursingh.firstname.lastname@example.org.