Critics of the Electoral College say it thwarts “the will of the people,” and they’re right. But they overlook the salutary effects of thwarting the people’s will, especially when “the people” are a boisterous minority. In 1992, 19 percent of Americans willed that Ross Perot be president. The Electoral College willed otherwise and awarded Perot zero electoral votes. In doing so, this unpopular, undemocratic institution carried out the will of 81 percent of Americans.
Without the Electoral College, the two-party system would collapse. In its place would come something worse: a direct popular election in which independents and candidates of fringe parties vie for a plurality, not a majority, of votes. The likely result is that instead of electing presidents who win (roughly) half of the popular vote, we would elect presidents who win 30 to 45 percent. This happens routinely in parliamentary democracies, and it happened here in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected with just 43 percent of the popular vote (as against George Bush’s 37 percent and Perot’s 19 percent).
Many people welcome this prospect. As usual, many people are wrong. Despite its defects, the two-party system is better than the alternative. It fosters a politics of compromise and gridlock, which makes majority rule hard and minority rule harder. It isn’t popular, but it isn’t supposed to be.