South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, and one of his key campaign pledges involves fundamentally altering America’s Constitution. The mayor has promised to abolish the Electoral College in order to make the U.S. more “democratic.” This change might also make America more Democratic.
“We can’t nibble around the edges of a system that no longer works,” the mayor told “CBS This Morning” last month. “First of all, we’ve got to repair our democracy. The Electoral College needs to go because it’s made our society less and less democratic.”
Before that, Buttigieg said, “The Electoral College is at this point indefensible.”
Buttigieg is far from alone in calling for drastic changes to the Constitution. Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, Democrats have renewed calls to abolish the Electoral College. Yet when Barack Obama won the Electoral College in 2008 and 2012, liberals praised the Constitution’s method of choosing a president. Only when Republicans win by the same rules do Democrats call for drastic reform.
When Democrats took the majority in the House of Representatives last year, they drafted bills to remake the Constitution and fundamentally alter the game of American politics. One bill would abolish the Electoral College. Another would make voter registration automatic, repeal voter ID laws, drastically limit free speech in politics, and create a system where the government funds particular candidates.
Yet liberal reforms do not stop at the Electoral College, or even with such expansive voting laws.
A rising chorus of liberals has begun to advocate “reforms” to the Supreme Court — not in order to apply the laws, but to check the influence of President Donald Trump’s more originalist justices. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R-N.Y.) made no bones about her plan to “pack the Supreme Court” just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt threatened to do. Yet the Right’s focus on the Court stems from liberal justices using the judiciary to force liberal change on the country for decades, most notably on abortion and same-sex marriage.
As Republicans held onto their Senate majority in 2018, a rising chorus of liberals in the media lamented that the Senate was not representative of the direct will of the people. Readers of the Federalist Papers would counter that the U.S. Senate was never intended to represent the direct will of the people, but rather that of the states. Indeed, until 1913, senators were nominated by state legislatures.
Ironically, American government makes less sense today because the Progressive movement (pushed by both Democrats and Republicans) made the Constitution more “democratic” than it was intended to be. The founders created a system of representative government — a republic, not a democracy — with checks and balances in order to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court were meant to restrain the power of the majority to force its will on everyone else.
As for Buttigieg’s statement that the Electoral College has made American society “less and less democratic,” that statement is false. It is true that Trump won the 2016 election with fewer raw votes than Hillary Clinton. That has always been possible under the rules of the game, and Trump played the game better than Clinton.
Yet even this undemocratic institution has become more democratic in recent decades. States have begun dividing up their electoral votes, rather than awarding all of them to the candidate who takes the majority. Many states have “bound” their electors to vote for the candidate chosen by the majority of the people of their state.
Under the original system, the electors were free to choose whichever candidate they desired for the presidency. The idea was to have a select group of people who would choose the president, rather than having the people select a president by popular vote.
America’s representative system is far from perfect, but demands to change the rules of the game should be regarded as suspect — especially when a candidate for the presidency calls for a fundamental alteration in how the president is elected.
The call to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a nationwide majority vote mostly comes from Democrats — because this change would ostensibly make it easier for Democrats to defeat Republicans.
Buttigieg was wrong to say the Electoral College was making America “less democratic,” but the reverse of his statement — that abolishing the institution would make America more democratic — is correct. This fundamental alteration to the Constitution would also likely make the U.S. more Democratic, more favorable to Democrats.
The mayor’s motives may be pure — he may indeed want this radical change as a matter of principle. Even so, Americans should not overlook the fact that this change would give his party a structural advantage in politics. This statement of principle is awfully convenient.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.