The Only Libertarian Position
By Sam Coppinger
Few issues provoke such strict battle lines to be drawn within the libertarian movement as the Electoral College. Moreover, unlike the few similarly-contentious topics, opinions on the Electoral College do not even seem to track to obvious differences in ideology or worldview (e.g. leftism vs. capitalism, incrementalism vs. vanguardism, moderation vs. radicalism, or even social progressivism vs. social conservatism). It seems odd there could simultaneously be strong libertarian arguments for both mutually exclusive sides of this single issue, but that’s because, simply put, there are not. Any “libertarian” argument in its favor is nothing more than a false or mistaken application of libertarian principles.
It must first be recalled that the libertarian ideology is built on the bedrock belief that all people, regardless of race, gender, national origin, physical and mental ability, or any other fundamental characteristic are inherently of equal metaphysical value. The very concept of natural, negative rights is derived from this belief — if it were not accepted that all people are equal simply by virtue of their personhood, there would be no rational argument that they all deserve the same rights. Such an assertion could still hypothetically be made, but it would have no concrete, logical basis, and would consequentially be vulnerable to perversion at any moment. With egalitarianism understood to be the most fundamental of all libertarian beliefs, one can also make the connection that libertarian ideology would dictate that the government always treat people equally, all else held constant. Clearly, such a demand would also logically preclude government from offering any kind of either preferential or discriminatory treatment on the basis of location of residence. From the perspective of the federal government, all United States citizens should be subject to the same laws and treatment regardless of state of residence. A New Yorker must be equal to a West Virginian; a Texan equal to a Vermonter. Under the Electoral College, this notion is plainly violated.
The Electoral College system cares not for individuals, but for states — arbitrary political collectives which should carry little significance to anyone of the libertarian bent. Under the current system, states are awarded votes based on the sum total of the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives they have in Congress. This means that the smallest number of votes a state can possibly have is three. If we take the lowest population state, Wyoming, with an estimated residency of 580,000 people, this means there is one electoral vote for every approximately 193 thousand people. Contrast this with California, the most populous state, with 39.6 million people and 55 electoral votes, working out to one vote for every 720 thousand people. In terms of representation, this means that the voice of any singular Wyomingan is given nearly four times the weight of a Californian’s. Far from treating all people as equals, this system sees the federal government clearly play favorites on the basis of state origin. Such an arbitrary and disparate valuation of individual worth by the government should be utterly anathema to anyone who even dabbles with remotely libertarian thinking.
Through observation of popular discussion surrounding the Electoral College, two things become rapidly evident: firstly, that its support is heavily subsidized by the rural fetishism that deeply permeates American culture, and that most arguments against its abolition can ultimately be traced to nakedly partisan realpolitik. Visible across all manner of American media is a toxic tendency to associate rural, inland living with true Americanism, and urban, coastal living with illegitimacy, crime, dishonesty, collectivism, and other negative concepts. This can be seen in everything from Christmas movies where people in the big city “lose sight of what’s important” and end up “coming home” for the holidays to be with family, to country music that hails the Middle American “Heartland,” and more. There is most certainly a strong whiff of systemic racism and white supremacy to this phenomenon as well, but that may best left for another discussion.
Regardless, this same mentality heavily fuels adoration for the Electoral College. When those who live in or near major coastal metropolises are seen as sub-American collective masses, and rural Americans in the breadbasket as the true heirs of the Founding Fathers’ vision, it becomes much easier to justify privileging the latter at the expense of the former. What makes it easier yet is when one perceives the former group to be little more than a pack of wild animals trying their damnedest to plunder the hard-earned wealth and eliminate the God-given freedoms of the latter. This is where the shameless partisanship imbued in the Electoral College debate begins to show itself. Much like how conservatives throughout history have defended gerrymandering, poll taxes, unnecessary voter ID laws, narrow voting time windows, land ownership requirements, and even blatant exclusions of the vote entirely to all but white men, they also defend the Electoral College on the basis that it restricts the power of those who they believe are likely to vote against their particular political interests. It is commonly (and wrongly, as will later be addressed) believed that were the Electoral College system to be abolished, only the few largest cities in the country would dominate presidential politics, and leverage that power to more or less enslave “real, hard-working” (rural, white, blue-collar) America in order to provide welfare and “free stuff” to those in the coastal cities (namely, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, and the poor). It’s actually rather jarring how shameless conservatives are in their willingness to simply deny or restrict the franchise of people whom they prejudiciously expect to hold different values than themselves.
Such illiberal sentiment gets at another key element of why the Electoral College is such a travesty: it disgraces the very notion of democracy. Before getting into how this is the case, however, perhaps it may be necessary to establish why exactly one ought to care. It is worth at least acknowledging that, of course, democracy is not a flawless system by any stretch of the imagination. There is some validity to the old metaphor of two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Luckily, the American system of a constitutional republic certainly avoids, or at least places obstacles in the way of, some of the most dangerous aspects of democracy, like populist mob rule, under which the majority could simply vote to abolish all legal protections of the rights of minorities. That’s not remotely to say the rights guaranteed under the Constitution, especially those of marginalized people, have always been respected (local law enforcement looking the other way regarding lynchings in the Jim Crow South comes to mind…), but even so, having a concrete list of rights the government is even theoretically obligated to respect is tremendously important — and luckily there are groups like the ACLU which help people take action against the government when it oversteps its bounds. To get back to the primary topic at hand, though, the point is that having some form of democracy is utterly essential to maintaining an environment where anything even remotely resembling libertarianism can exist. If majority rule it can be used to trample on the rights of minorities, then minority rule is an evil so great it oughtn’t even need a description why. Despite its flaws, democracy is still indescribably preferable to all its alternatives (fascism, theocracy, communism, autocratic monarchy, etc.). Many libertarians frequently attack the notion of democracy for many of the aforementioned reasons, apparently failing to realize that, by doing so, they are only helping to pave the way for something immeasurably worse.
With a common understanding of democracy as a general good, or at least a flawed guardian against tremendously greater evils, it logically follows that that which harms democracy harms the defense against its evil alternatives. As addressed earlier, the Electoral College is precisely such a harm. Under the Electoral College system, the voice of the people is stifled, manipulated, and ignored in despicable ways utterly indefensible by any moral or rational being. It is currently mathematically possible for a president to be elected in the United States while winning less than 22% of the popular vote — and since less than have of eligible voter do, in fact, it is in turn possible to be elected president by the will of about 10% of the country. Now, the specific circumstances of this hypothetical scenario are extraordinarily unlikely, but the case study is nonetheless very effective at illustrating the problems of the Electoral College.
Arguably the most egregious problem with the system is the winner-take-all element, which effectively silences the voices of everyone who dissents from even the narrow-majority opinion of the arbitrarily-defined state within which they live. A Republican voter in New York or a Democratic voter in West Virginia may as well not even submit a ballot in presidential elections, because their vote will undoubtedly be thrown aside once the vote total in each respective state inevitably runs blue and red.
This result is the logical conclusion of a system which favors states over actual people, and highlights why that is such a poor manner in which to go about organizing an election. States are naught but landmasses whose borders are determined by conflicts, accords, and geographical features entirely irrelevant to the personhood of those who live within them, and should honestly have no significance in federal elections whatsoever. As far as the federal government is concerned, the people of the United States ought not to be considered Texans, Californians, Nebraskans, or Wisconsinites — all that should matter is that they are Americans. Any system of national election ought to be on the basis of individual votes, not collectivism which regards states as individuals in and of themselves. The voices of those who differ from the dominant preference of the region in which they reside should not be simply washed away. The irony is that the very majority rule which proponents of the Electoral College claim to fear is actually part and parcel of the Electoral College system, albeit on the state level.
The fear of tyranny by the majority also often leads many Electoral College defenders to claim any system based on people rather than landmasses would result in those in the few largest cities in the country essentially ruling over everyone else. Simply put, this characterization is spectacularly flawed on all counts—so much so, in fact, that it is difficult to even begin deconstructing it. Firstly, the assertion is just empirically false. The sum population of even the top five largest cities in the country (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix), by 2018 estimates, is about 19 million. Compare to the 2018 US population estimate of 327 million, and the proportion is a measly 5.81%. Even expanding to the top ten cities, and to metropolitan areas rather than just cities, the population total becomes about 87 million, or 26.6% of the country. A healthy chunk, to be sure, but still nowhere near enough to control an election alone. However, even more assumptions and nuances require attention. These numbers include children and immigrants, who obviously are not eligible to vote. They also neglect to consider that a majority of eligible American voters simply choose not to. There is also a baked-in assumption behind this claim that all people who live in cities will vote one way (namely, Democratic). In reality, obviously, cities are extremely diverse places with a broad range of political opinions and voting patterns.
With all these considerations in mind, even the 26.6% figure is a tremendous overestimate of the political influence of these areas. However, still none of this truly gets to the heart of the problem with this narrative, because even in the case that the statement was accurate, how would it be at all unjust that a larger amount of people have a larger say? Even if the US was a nation of gargantuan megacities, how would this change the basic libertarian, and moral, principle of one person, one vote? Even if 99% of the country’s population lived within a single square mile, it would still be the libertarian case to value all votes equally. It is not the distance away from others which determines people’s value, but the very fact that they are people.
One of the noblest intentions of the Electoral College system was the desire to prevent an illiberal, charismatic, populist strongman who could be backed by a foreign power from winning an election due to ignorance, naiveté, or misinformation on the part of the voters. It should take no more than a newspaper from November 9th, 2016 to prove that the Electoral College has completely and stupendously failed in this regard. Not only did it fail to prevent precisely this situation from occurring, but it actually caused it to occur when it otherwise would not have. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by the biggest margin ever for a winning presidential candidate (that such a concept even exists is an illustration of the absurdity of the system), and would not have been elected under a different electoral system. Far from restraining the fleeting will of a woefully misguided electorate, the Electoral College system ignored the will of the people and caused the election of the most corrupt, unpopular president in the history of the country.
The intentions of the Electoral College were undoubtedly noble and understandable from the perspective of a proponent of liberty. The Founding Fathers, despite their countless personal flaws and hypocrisies, were immensely brilliant statesmen, made crucial contributions to the liberal and libertarian philosophies, and crafted the most libertarian governing document ever written. However, they, like all human beings, were not beyond reproach, and the Electoral College was one of their many errors. The system fundamentally contradicts basic liberal values, makes a mockery of democracy, is propped up by collectivist, prejudicial, partisan sentiments, and has failed to perform the duty it was intended to. It is high time to do away with this archaic, unjust, failed system and begin the discussion as to what ought to replace it. A sheer popular vote, still under a plurality-based, first-past-the-post system, would be nearly as problematic as the current Electoral College, and should not be used, either. It would not produce a direct democracy, as many opponents ignorantly claim (direct democracy would mean abolition of the republic of elected representatives in favor of legislation via public referenda, which is not on the table in any case), but it would nonetheless continue to produce undesirable outcomes and fuel dangerous populism. Promising electoral systems may include ranked-choice, under which candidates of many parties are ranked by voters in order of preference, range, under which voters rate each candidate on a certain scale, or even approval, under which voters simply indicate in a binary manner whether they would approve of particular candidates or not. Any of these systems, and likely countless others, would solve nearly all problems of the Electoral College, in addition to providing other benefits such as a healthier and less polarized national political discourse, the alleviation of the political pendulum effect, under which elections become forms of increasingly-extreme revenge by one political party against the other, the growth of more than two parties as credible alternatives, and the possibility of more than one candidate per party to run, so that different visions within a party can compete with one another without causing total division among the party ranks. It’s time for the United States to let go of the past, honor its spoken values, and abolish the Electoral College
Sam Coppinger is a libertarian activist, promoting a cosmopolitan, neoliberal brand of pragmatic libertarianism. He runs the Libertarian Memes for Neoliberal Teens page on Facebook.