As surely everyone has now been reminded, US presidents are not elected by straight nationwide majority voting. Rather, the majority vote in each state is used to assign that state’s delegates to the Electoral College, which then votes for president a few weeks later. A state has as many electors as the size of its congressional delegation (and the District of Columbia is treated as a small state for this purpose, having 3 electors, the minimum possible).

A person wins the presidential election by getting a majority of these electoral votes. It is therefore possible for all candidates to receive a nationwide vote total that is not a majority at all, or for a losing candidate to receive more votes nationwide in November than the December winner. The latter has happened several times in our nation’s history; the former happens very frequently.

There are arguments for and against the Electoral College. The case for doing it this way is usually framed in terms of requiring the presidential candidates to have a broad, national appeal as opposed to a merely regional strength. The argument against it is typically framed in terms of it being undemocratic — many people find it counterintuitive that one could receive more overall votes yet not command a majority of the Electoral College.

Sometimes these arguments use the same cases. Pro-EC people note that New York and California’s combined 86 electoral votes force candidates to appeal to voters in Midwestern and Southern states. Anti-EC people note that since New York and California have so many people in them, it’s unfair to balance their votes against much less populous states.

Merely noting that the Electoral College is undemocratic is not dispositive. Many features of the Constitution are specifically intended to be checks on the vicissitudes of majoritarianism — the bicameral legislature, the unelected judiciary appointed by the executive, and the Bill of Rights all represent anti-democratic thinking — and the electoral college method is arguably like that.

On the other hand, though, that is also not sufficient justification. Indeed, you could argue that the EC method is more democratic, because without electoral votes, people in sparsely populated states would have even less say.

Fundamentally, this argument about national appeal versus majoritarian democracy ought to lead to further investigation of what the role of states is in the federal system and to what extent sheer weight of numbers should count more or less than that.

Would US elections be fairer or select better presidents if we used a simple nationwide majority vote? Or does a certain amount of regional balance help keep New York and California from running roughshod over the Midwest?

It’s healthy for us to periodically revisit these discussions about the basic structure and principles of government. It’s probably less healthy, though, to tie one’s like or dislike of the electoral college to one’s preferred outcome in any particular race.