The Framers also distrusted democracy. But the deepest roots of the system lie in slavery. As Madison explained at Philadelphia, the South was populous, but it restricted the right to vote far more than the North, and would lose influence. Many people in the South, of course, were slaves and could never vote. Madison thought this unfair; the South “could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” Like the Senate, the electoral vote system was a firewall for slavery.
The system was a bad idea that quickly went haywire. That happened first in 1800, when a mix-up about electors threw the presidential vote into the House, sparking 35 ballots over a week—and rumors of an attack on Washington by outraged Jeffersonian militias—before the House picked Thomas Jefferson as the winner. Since then, the “college” has misfired over and over. In 1824, an electoral tie led to the selection of the popular and electoral vote loser, John Quincy Adams, over Andrew Jackson. In 1876, a disputed presidential election was settled by a commission set up by Congress—whose Republican majority awarded every disputed elector to the Republican candidate. “His Fraudulency,” Rutherford B. Hayes, lost the popular vote by 4 percent, but he won the commission vote by 8-7, and the electoral college vote by 1 vote.
Now, in the 2000s, the electoral college has twice awarded the presidency to the candidate who lost the popular vote. Al Gore in 2000 beat George W. Bush by half a million votes, but Bush won the presidency (the vote that counted was 5-4). Hillary Clinton, early returns suggest, this week received at least 300,000 more votes than Donald Trump; but, because of where his votes came from, Trump will receive somewhere between 279 and 330 electoral votes—well above the required 270.
Not surprisingly, after the brutal presidential campaign, Clinton supporters are crying foul. A change.org petition admits that if Trump’s pledged electors
all vote the way their states voted, Donald Trump will win. However, they can vote for Hillary Clinton if they choose. Even in states where that is not allowed, their vote would still be counted, they would simply pay a small fine - which we can be sure Clinton supporters will be glad to pay!
It’s hard to imagine a more cynical appeal. As my readers (both of them) know, the prospect of a Trump presidency revolts and terrifies me. Trump is a vile and anti-constitutional candidate and he will be a danger to many Americans and to the country as a whole.
But imagining the electors could, or “should,” break with constitutional duty in order to reverse the results of the election profoundly misunderstands even the concept of democracy. That’s true even though Clinton (whom I supported) “won” the popular vote. That’s a meaningless victory.
To understand why, go back to the 2004 Oregon Case of the Disappearing Candidates. In 2000, Ralph Nader had drawn 5 percent of the Oregon vote; there’s reason to believe his support was even deeper, because many of his supporters held their ballots until returns made it clear that Al Gore would need Oregon’s electors to defeat George Bush; then they drove to their county boards of electors and delivered the mail ballots. Gore squeaked out an Oregon win by 0.5 percent.