The Electoral College: Undemocratic relict of the past or a modern institution fostering stability in the US political system?

Following the election of

Donald Trump

in November 2016, centrist Democrats, a tiny few moderate Republicans and large sections of the media concentrated their political firepower on Russia, interference and collusion, portraying Trump to be the most serious threat to US democracy there has ever been. Sadly, though, they frequently missed the much more serious problems undermining US democracy, and they are largely structural shortcomings deeply embedded in the political and legal institutions shaping US politics. In this context, it is necessary to remember that the

Founding Fathers

Were primarily focused on creating a republic and not, as popular mythology would have us belief, a democracy. This is no academic distinction, and it is one of the most significant aspects explaining why US political institutions fall short of democratic standards embraced in large parts of the Western world. The

Electoral College

is one of these inherently undemocratic institutions, since its workings can hardly be reconciled to the democratic principle one person one vote. As historian

Alexander Keyssar

who has published extensively on the history of the Electoral College explains in this

Fascinating conversation

creating this particular body was one important means in order to protect landowning slaveholders in the South, and, since the Founding Fathers can hardly be described as a homogenous group of people, serious opposition to the College is almost as old as the republic itself. Indeed, attempts at reforming this institution have been put forward now and then, particularly following contested elections like the ones in 1876, 2000 and 2016. All these elections have one common denominator; in all three instances, the candidate winning the popular vote lost the Electoral college, thus causing difficult challenges for questions relating to democratic legitimacy for the president and thus putting considerable strain on institutions relying largely on popular support. In the same conversation, the staff writer for the Atlantic

W/vann R. Newkirk II

makes the subtle but accurate observation that, due to demographic trends and continuous urbanization, the role of the Electoral College will further increase the power and influence of small states, and this will be particularly beneficial to the GOP. Since the influence of the conservative South will be strengthened, it is likely that there could be quite a few future presidents who will come into office having gained a majority in the College but lost the popular vote. Since US society is becoming ever more polarized and fragmented, and nonwhites are expected to make up the majority of the population in a few decades, it is more than doubtful whether and for how long the US political system would be able to tolerate such a development. This is even more the case when remembering that the Electoral College, because of the motivation behind its creation and the role it has played in the political process since its inception, is a racially charged institution, making it susceptible to further conflict. Therefore, reforming or better abolishing this outdated institution must be a cornerstone for progressive politics in the US, and since a few contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination have put the issue back on the agenda, there is some hope that a broader public debate on this vital political question will ensue. This will be a prolonged and drawn-out battle, since the opposition will in all likelihood come from predominantly white conservative forces in the South, but for the sake of a more democratic country, it is a battle which has to be fought, and it is time to raise the issue now. It is one of the policies that can unite and energize progressive elements in US politics, and there is a strong case for urgent reform to be made.

More on US history and politics can be found


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