In recent years, the United States has seen a surge in support for doing away with the Electoral College, and instead electing our president purely through a popular vote. In the light of this year’s election, calls for abolishing the Electoral College have grown even louder.
But Tara Ross, nationally-recognized expert on the Electoral College, urges us to reflect on just how unique and nuanced our system of government is, and why, in this time of intense division, our nation needs the Electoral College now more than ever. Ross joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to share her insights.
Ross points out that during the most divisive time in our nation’s history—the Civil War—the Electoral College actually helped bring us back together. “Back then, there were two elections pretty close together in 1876 and 1888, where the winner of the recorded national popular vote did not match the winner of the Electoral College vote. And what happened was, I would argue that the Electoral College actually helped to bring us out of that ugly divided place.”
“What ended up happening was the Democrats and the Republicans both realized it was not productive to stay where they were,” Ross continues. “They had to reach out to people who are not quite like themselves in order to succeed. They had to figure out how to be more inclusive, how to listen to voters that maybe came from a different region or had different areas of concern.”
This same strategy can help bring our nation back together today, Ross argues. “None of us like it, but both parties are making the same mistake. They are too busy catering to their base, or they’re not busy enough building coalitions. The first party to figure it out and to do a better job is going to start winning in landslides. But if we get rid of the Electoral College, we will have no incentives left in our system for this kind of coalition building, working together. Let’s remember what we have in common as Americans. These are the kinds of incentives that the Electoral College provides.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Tara Ross explain how our government is unique and why we need the Electoral College.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As we transition from election season back into our more normal routines—whatever that is in 2020—we thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of what makes America so great and so unique as an experiment in self-governance, as a democratic republic, and look at some of the nuances of the American electoral and governing systems.
We thought it would be interesting to speak with Tara Ross. She’s a retired attorney and prolific writer, who is nationally recognized for her expertise on the Electoral College. A retired lawyer, her online video “Do you understand the Electoral College?” has received more than 60 million views. Oh my goodness.
Tara Ross, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
TARA ROSS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: Start by reminding us please, in case some of us have forgotten, what is so unique about the American system of government from an historical point?
TARA ROSS: Well, you know, our Founders, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, met at a really unique moment in time. We don’t always think about it today, but back then, there were no political parties, right. I mean, there wasn’t even the United States at that point. There were just a bunch of men gathered in a hall in Philadelphia, and they were there to represent their states. And to the degree that they had a bias, by the way, it was not in favor of a political party. It was a bias in favor of a large versus small state bias. But these were men who were well-read. They had studied history; they had studied different political philosophies. These were men who were sitting there without the kind of partisan entanglements that we would think of today. And they were just sitting there trying to figure out how can we put together the best form of government. What can we learn from the failures of the past? How can we take the best of the past democracies and use that, but then avoid their failures and avoid the pitfalls that they fell into? And so, they literally sat there the whole summer, and they had a philosophical discussion, you know, the likes of which you can’t even imagine Congress today having. And they sat there and discussed how to create a new form of government. And that’s what they did. And I don’t think that could ever be replicated again today.
TRACI GRIGGS: You know, you mentioned a couple of terms: they were well-read, and they studied history. And I know that they also studied philosophers, and we are not well-read these days. I mean, certainly we don’t have to be as well-read as our country’s Founders, but is this a danger that we’re not keeping up with history and some of these things that founded our country?
TARA ROSS: I mean, it’s a huge danger, right. And maybe in 2020, we’ve seen so much of how that can undermine us. Not to bash any particular person, but we’ve watched all year long. We’ve watched governors or local executives on both sides of the political aisle seize power that’s not really theirs, right. They’re ignoring checks and balances. We normally have a Congress or a state legislature or a city council, and they work with a governor or a mayor or president and sort things out. We have hearings and debates, and we talk about things, but we’ve lived this whole year as if one man or one woman can just say, “Well, now lockdown” or “Now, whatever.” The reason I mentioned this is because the problem is that we are so uneducated in our own form of government that it’s almost like nobody even stops to think about whether this was permissible or whether this was a good idea. And of course, some of the changes that were made were unilateral changes to election law. And again, it’s the job of a legislature plus a governor to change election law in a state. It’s not the job of a governor acting alone to do that. So, maybe it’s no surprise after a whole year of ignoring the checks and balances and our Constitution and separation of powers and all of these things that we’ve got an election, and there’s a bunch of upset, you know, and nobody can figure out what’s going on. I would say, if you ignore the rule of law, or maybe you don’t know the rule of law, and so you ignore it, maybe some of these things are unsurprising.
TRACI GRIGGS: Talk about some of the safeguards which are in place—or supposed to be in place—to preserve the uniqueness of the American system of government, and which of course set it apart from other systems like a monarchy, a dictatorship, or even a pure democracy, which a lot of people think is what we’re under.
TARA ROSS: Right. I mean, so everything about our government, whether it’s in the state Constitution, the federal Constitution, or the whole structure of our government, it assumes that there will never be a moment when all power is in one set of hands, ever. There are always checks and balances. There are always separation of powers. The federal government can do some things that the state governments can’t and vice versa. The legislature can do things, can make laws. The governor cannot make laws. I mean, maybe the governor can veto a law. So, there’s checks and balances. Everybody’s got their own job. And the idea behind that was supposed to be, you know, James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” right. So, you’ve got all these checks and balances, and then he also said the reason it works is because you “set ambition against ambition.” You’re almost expecting people to be selfish, but you’ve got two selfish, imperfect human beings on opposite sides, checking each other, and it comes out right in the end.
So, our whole system is just a delicate balance that is set up this way. And so again, you know, not to harp on it, but we’ve been ignoring that all year long, and it’s to our detriment because there is no person that has the corner on the truth. There’s no person that’s immune to the possibility of power going into their heads, you know, even well-intentioned people. You can look at a situation like we’re in today and how much better could some things have gone if we just had the opportunity for debate for all sides to be heard. So, you get a variety of perspectives. You have a legislature that can with each of those members of legislature have 24 hours in their day to listen as opposed to a single individual in the governor’s mansion, who has had only one set of 24 hours in a day and just limited ability to hear even if they want to hear from everybody. It gives you more opportunities to be heard, more opportunities to make sure that the voice of the people, which is what makes government legitimate, is heard. And so, the better we do at respecting these checks and balances, separation of powers, and all of these safeguards in our Constitution, the more control we’re ultimately going to have over our own lives and our own freedom.
TRACI GRIGGS: Just to be clear, though, we are talking about a democratic republic, right, as opposed to a democracy. Can you explain the difference?
TARA ROSS: Sure, absolutely. I mean, and you’re right, the Founders were deliberately trying to avoid the concept of a simple democracy. They had just fought this war from Britain, which they did fight for the right to self-governance. They wanted to be self-governing. They did value some aspect of democracy in their government, but they knew something that we have forgotten. Even if they had been given a seat at the table in parliament, like they wanted, like when the war first started, they said, “No taxation without representation … we have no seat in parliament … this is not right.” But even if they had been given that seat in parliament, they would have been out-voted time and time again by the majority of citizens at home in England. So, they knew it’s not always enough just to get a vote. The modern example is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Is it fair, right? Like the sheep doesn’t care that it got to vote; it’s still getting eaten for dinner. Like it doesn’t care at all.
So, you have to have something better than a simple democracy. A simple democracy will result in tyranny of the majority. So the Founders, when they were setting up our government again, they thought, look, we know, we have to figure out how to reconcile these principles. How do you have a government that is self-governing—the people do rule—but also you protect minorities? And so, they did that by inserting all sorts of different principles in their government. I’ve been talking about checks and balances and separation of powers, but at the end of the day, our government is a blend. It does have some democratic principles; we are self-governing. It also has some republican principles, small R, meaning we’re to encourage deliberation, compromise, and working together in our government. It also has some principles of federalism, which is a word that we don’t hear that much, but it basically means state-by-state action, or some responsibilities are delegated to the states, and the national government has no control over it. The idea being that governance is fairest when it’s closest to home because you have a better chance of influencing it. So, I usually say, you know, you could say we’re a constitutional republic, or I guess you could say a democratic republic. I sometimes just say, we’re just a blend. We’re a blend of three different kinds of governmental principles: federalism, democracy, and republicanism. And we’ve got the best of all of them.
TRACI GRIGGS: That seems like a very good introduction into talking about the Electoral College, because that’s one of the ways, right? That was one of the things that was inserted to try to make our country different from a democracy and fairer for all individuals. How does that work?
TARA ROSS: You know, when the Founders got to the Convention, it was really important to them to come up with a good system of electing presidents because they had been so abused by a King, and they needed to have more protection against tyranny than they had had in England. So, they had all sorts of ideas, but it came down to, at the end of the day, they were talking about two major concepts. One was a national popular vote, just like you hear people talking about today. The other was legislative selection. So, imagine Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, trying to fight it out right now as to who is going to be president, you know, at the head of Congress. So, they did not like the concept of legislative selection. In the end, it was because they felt that they couldn’t sufficiently separate powers between the legislative and the executive branch. If Congress was in charge of choosing the president, then maybe the president would always be way too concerned with keeping Congress happy. And they wanted the powers to be separated better than that.
But the other idea, national popular vote, couldn’t really gain steam either. And that was mainly because the small states would have none of it. They were really worried. They felt like if you have a national popular vote, then the small states are going to get out-voted time and time again. This is ridiculous. Once, one of the small state delegates—it was a guy from Delaware; his name was Gunning Bedford Jr.—and he said, “I do not trust you, gentlemen, if you have the power, the abuse of it could not be checked, and you would exercise it to our destruction.” And that’s how the small states felt. We will be destroyed if it’s a simple, direct vote all the time. The large states will pick the president, and we will have no say in it. So, at the end of the day, what ends up happening is there’s a committee of unfinished business that goes, and we don’t know totally what happened there because they didn’t take notes in that meeting, but there was one delegate many years later who said that Mr. Madison, meaning James Madison, took a pen and paper and sketched out an idea. And then they came back and presented it to the full convention, and it was essentially our Electoral College. So, that’s how we got it. It was a compromise at the end of the Convention between the large and the small states.
TRACI GRIGGS: Very interesting. And it does make sense when you explain it like that. It does seem that it’s becoming more frequent that presidential candidates will lose the election popular vote, even though they win the Electoral College. And that makes some people very angry. They think it’s time to change that. What do you say to that?
TARA ROSS: It’s more frequent now. We’ve had a period like this in the past, and what I’ve been saying is we’re in a period of time that’s much like that after the Civil War. Back then also we had division and anger and election maps that look the same over and over, very close elections over and over again. Back then, there were two elections pretty close together in 1876 and 1888, where the winner of the recorded national popular vote did not match the winner of the Electoral College vote, just like today. And what happened is, I would argue that the Electoral College actually helped to bring us out of that ugly divided place. Now it didn’t happen right away because people are stubborn, and they’ll try everything else first. But what ends up happening is the Democrats and the Republicans both realized it was not productive to stay where they were. They had to reach out to people who are not quite like themselves. They had to figure out how to be more inclusive, how to listen to voters that, you know, maybe came from a different region or had different areas of concern. And by the early 1900s, what you find is that coalition building was so much better. You have Calvin Coolidge and FDR winning in huge, massive landslides. So, what I would say about today is, yeah, this is a really ugly place. I don’t like it. None of us like it, but both parties are making the same mistake. They are too busy catering to their base, or they’re not busy enough building coalitions. And you know, the first party to figure it out and to do a better job is going to start winning in landslides. But if we get rid of the Electoral College, we will have no incentives left in our system for this kind of coalition building, working together. Let’s remember what we have in common as Americans. These are the kinds of incentives that the Electoral College provides.
TRACI GRIGGS: What a hopeful note to end on. That was excellent. So, we are about out of time, but before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about the Electoral College and to follow your work?
TARA ROSS: Well, you can always go to my website, which is taraross.com, and all of my books are listed there. The Prager University video that you mentioned at the beginning of this is also on the homepage of my website. And I think the video on Prager University just did a fantastic job. But again, it’s taratoss.com.
TRACI GRIGGS: All right, well, Tara Ross, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
TARA ROSS: Thank you for having me.
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