The Electoral College Genetic Fallacy


As we prepare to inaugurate a president who failed to win the popular vote, either by majority or plurality, the normal background noise about eliminating the Electoral College is being amplified. It feels more momentous this time, in part, I think, because the President-Elect drew support from the most outwardly nationalist, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic part of the electorate, and it is impossible to justify protecting those interests through an anti-democratic mechanism (as opposed to “small states,” or “rural interests,” for which you might be able to come up with a reasonable justification for greater electoral representation, such as relative lack of economic clout).

I would probably be okay with eliminating the Electoral College. On balance, I think it’s not a great idea. But there are serious arguments for keeping it, such as some of the ones laid out by Judge Posner in this article. And if you want to argue for its abolition, those are the kinds of arguments you need to engage with.

Instead, what my (admittedly unscientific) observations suggest is that the more common argument being made (aside from the simplistic and reductionist population argument), is that the Electoral College should be eliminated because its original purpose was to give the slave states greater power.

That is an example of the genetic fallacy, where the origin or source of a thing is used to determine its current validity or virtue. The argument that the electoral college was created to further a white supremacist agenda is right. It is an important historical fact, and I don’t think you can understand modern America without understanding the ways in which the original structures of the United States were both explicitly designed for the purpose of and implicitly justified by maintenance of white supremacy. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether the Electoral College is a good idea now, as it is presently used.

One particular example of why this is important is the question of whether voters in large states have their votes diluted or amplified in the current system. In a purely numerical sense, it’s an easy question: the mal-apportionment of Electoral College votes makes a vote in the more populous states less valuable than a vote in a smaller state. But as Judge Posner points out, the use of a winner-take-all system for larger states means that there is a disproportionate pay-out for more modest gains in the electorate there, and that means that big states get much more attention from candidates. And if you accept Judge Posner’s argument, then the Electoral College becomes a way to amplify the votes of racial minorities, who tend to be more strongly represented in the larger states, even if its original design was meant to do precisely the opposite.

I’m not sure that Judge Posner is right. It’s an empirical question, and a complicated one at that. What I do know is that dismissing the Electoral College wholesale on the basis of the racism of the political and racial elites of the late 18th Century does not make logical sense. If you want to convince someone that we should get rid of it, it is insufficient to show that part of its original justification was bad; you need to go further and show that its current use is bad.


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