Ever since the astonishing 2016 presidential election results began to sink in, the news media has been covering protests, riots, tearful interviews, and social media rants against both Donald Trump and the Electoral College. Meanwhile, it has been widely reported that Hillary Clinton won the “popular vote.” Trump is only the president-elect because the Founders chose a republic form of government, with Americans represented by a “college” of “electors” who are guided by our votes. Because of the way the number of electors are determined under this system, some states like California have fewer electors per capita than other states with lower populations. meaning sometimes a minority of Americans has more influence over the electoral college. Clinton supporters say this is fundamentally unfair and now, 229 years after the Founders signed the Constitution which established our nation as a republic, some want to change to system to a real democracy, by which they mean pure majority rule.
At first blush, this sounds okay. After all, only fascists, commies and dictators don’t like democracy. If more Americans voted for Clinton, why shouldn’t she be our next President? So let’s change the system. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a couple of things, actually, and they’re both pretty awful. For example, check out this pie chart:
There you have an accurately scaled depiction of the difference between the total votes cast for Trump (in red) and Clinton (in blue). See the difference? Look carefully or you’ll miss it.
As of today The New York Times reports 1,265,379 more people voted for Clinton. That sounds like a lot until you consider that the Times also reports there were 123,517,291 total ballots cast. So the difference is only 1.02% of the total votes. That is well within the statistical margin of error of virtually any system capable of counting so many individual decisions.
Also remember that only half of the 1,265,379 difference would need to move over to the Trump column to make the election a tie. In other words, Trump came within one half of one percent of getting exactly the same number of votes as Clinton. Put another way, only one American out of 200 would have to change their vote to make it a tie. It’s entirely possible for that many of us to cast a vote for the wrong candidate by accident.
As things stand now, even with an electoral college result that leaves the nation in no doubt about who won the election a fringe element has been rioting about the election. Imagine what might happen if the decision rested on a popular vote this close. Would anyone trust the results enough to accept them? Or would there be bitterly contested recounts dragging on for months, and battles in the streets from coast to coast? As ugly as things have been the last two weeks, I think it’s very possible we’d see anarchy without a clear cut winner. So this is the first reason why it’s good our country isn’t governed purely by majority rule: the current system allows us to avoid the chaos that could easily arise after elections where difference between the majority and minority is so small.
…let’s change the system. What could possibly go wrong?
Next, consider this: according to The Gallup Poll, in 1937, only a third of Americans indicated they were willing to vote for a woman for president. Since the population was divided roughly 50/50 between the genders, apparently even many females back then didn’t believe a woman was up to the job. In fact, it wasn’t until 1955 that the majority of Americans said they would seriously consider a female candidate.
Also, in 1938 only 38% of Americans would have voted for a black person for president. It wasn’t until 1964 that a majority of Americans said they would support a black candidate. And it’s safe to wonder if they really meant it even then, since no black person won a major party’s nomination for the job until 2008.
Perhaps you see where I’m going. These dismaying figures hint at a danger with a “pure” democracy that seldom gets discussed. In a country ruled strictly by majority rule, who will stand up for those in the minority?
John Adams referred to this problem as the “tyranny of the majority.” He wrote, “We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…” (John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, November 13, 1815).
In modern times there is perhaps no better illustration of Adams’s concern than this one:
The brown bar at the top is the clear winner in terms of the German popular vote in 1933 (their last free election prior to WWII). NSDAP stand for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, also known as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or the Nazis.
So much for the fairness of majority rule.
There have been several calls for the electoral college to vote against the election results and put Clinton in office. If those on the extreme left wing were correct about Donald Trump, if he truly was Hitler as some of them claim to believe, I would also be calling for the electors to go rogue. Fortunately, Trump is not Hitler. But it’s good to know our republic has a safety valve to keep people out of the Oval Office who really are like Hitler, even if someday the majority of Americans decide to express their inner Nazi at the polling place.