The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy
— Donald J. Trump, 2012
They roll around every four years, as they’ve been doing since 1788, but one fundamental feature of presidential elections in the US is almost always forgotten by voters who, when they cast their vote for their preferred candidate, think their mark will count as much as the next voter’s, and that the prize will go to the contender who wins the plurality in the nationwide ballot.
It’s only when the results are reported through the night — state by state from the east coast to the west — that they realise their grasp of the 1787 constitution was not as firm as they thought it was. The candidates and their squads of advisers, researchers, psephologists, opinion pollsters, publicists, and lawyers never ever forget that the president is not elected directly by the popular vote.
The president and vice president are elected by an Electoral College, comprising 538 voters chosen state by state according to laws that vary across the country. The number of college voters each state gets is determined by population sizes, which gives California 55 and tiny Vermont three. In most cases, electors appointed to the college give all of their votes to the candidate who carried their state.
Thanks to this winner-takes-all system, Mr Trump took all of Michigan’s 16 college votes in 2016, having won a majority of only 10,700 in the state’s popular vote. Mrs Clinton’s 2.87m majority in the nationwide poll counted for naught after Mr Trump had more than comfortably crossed the line — 304 votes to 227 — in the college.
Democracy in the US was tested to its limits in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 547,000. George W Bush won by a mere five Electoral College votes, after which lawyers spent five weeks arguing about allegations of dirty work at polling stations in Florida. The presidency was awarded to Mr Bush by the Supreme Court, with five judges in favour and four dissenting from a more than somewhat tainted verdict.
Studies by the New York Times of opinion polls in the half a dozen states that could swing the vote one way or the other suggest that a second Trump victory in November via the college cannot be ruled out, in which event the customary calls for its abolition — made, by among others, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and, yes, Mr Trump — will be repeated and, as is also customary, ignored by state legislators and the US Congress.
The republic’s Founding Fathers had a number of worries in mind when they created the college. Slavery in the southern states was one of them. The allocation of seats was weighted to safeguard the interests of slave owners, and as a consequence the presidency was won by Virginian slave-holders for the first 32 years of the young republic’s life.
With that tiresome problem out of the way, the constitution’s framers settled on what they knew was an imperfect compromise between factions that thought the Congress should be kept well away from choosing the head of the government’s executive branch and those that feared democracy raw in tooth and claw in a country in which only city voters could be fully informed about the candidates and their policies would put buffoons and demagogues into the White House.
Their preference was for candidates — men, of course — who were well-educated and wise.
Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the rest would be dismayed to see that their device for keeping ill-educated crowd-pleasers out of the Oval Office had secured the
election of, firstly, George W Bush and then Mr Trump.
His malevolent contribution to calming the anger that has seen Covid-19 restraint cast off and transformed lawful protest into looting and rioting in more than 40 cities from sea to sea shining sea was a gloating tweet warning demonstrators in Washington DC about “the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons I have ever seen … and many Secret Service agents just waiting for action” they’d meet should they breach the White House fences.
As law enforcement in the US is the responsibility not of the president but of state governors, there is little if anything that Mr Trump can do now other than throw yet more oil on the fires. His calculation, we must assume dolefully, will be that his support base in the states that in 2016 took him over the line in the Electoral College — Minnesota not being one of them — will be strengthened not sapped by the chaos into which the country has descended.