What the Electoral College and the Free Will Defense Have in Common

The electoral college, like Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, is criticized almost exclusively by people who don’t understand it. Both are also the kinds of things easier to understand in reverse: understanding first the overall upshot first helps to aid understanding of the nuts and bolts. With respect to the electoral college, it’s easy to find articles with heavy emphasis on the latter but light emphasis on the former. This is one of the better articles I’ve seen on the electoral college’s overall upshot: the rationale for why it exists, and, in particular, why (again, like the Free Will Defense) it is so awesome. Especially noteworthy is the following point, which people who trash the two-party system would do well to internalize:

[T]he electoral college actually keeps presidential elections from going undemocratically awry because it makes unlikely the possibility that third-party candidates will garner enough votes to make it onto the electoral scoreboard. Without the electoral college, there would be no effective brake on the number of “viable” presidential candidates. Abolish it, and it would not be difficult to imagine a scenario where, in a field of a dozen micro-candidates, the “winner” only needs 10 percent of the vote, and represents less than 5 percent of the electorate. And presidents elected with smaller and smaller pluralities will only aggravate the sense that an elected president is governing without a real electoral mandate.

For the illiterate among us (i.e., Democratic voters), check out Prager U’s videos on the electoral college here and here.

Federal Philosopher

Federal Philosopher is a philosophy graduate student in New Jersey. She was awakened from her political slumbers after reading biographies of Margaret Thatcher. She loves philosophy, but thinks the profession has been hijacked by a bunch of leftist bullies who are little more than partisan journalists that happen to know philosophical jargon. She carries a recurve bow and quiver full of arrows at all times, so as not to trigger leftists by saying she packs a .380 in her purse.

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  1. Abolish it *and* keep everything else as it remains is problematic, true, because Americans have a presidential system. Popular vote wouldn’t be as troublesome in parliamentary systems.

  2. While the winner might need just 10% without the Electoral College as long as there are no procedures to prevent that – such as a runoff election between the two most voted candidates, or IRV, etc. -, with the Electoral College the winner does not need even 10% of the votes, given that the winner might just have fewer votes than other candidates. For that matter, electors might decide to elect someone who had no votes whatsoever, or a minimum number. Instead of Trump, they might pick Pence, or Cruz, or Stein, or Warren, etc.
    Granted, in practice, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But in practice, also, there seems to be no good reason to believe there would be no winner with 10% of the votes in America, either, even without IRV or a runoff election.
    Incidentally, all governors in the US are elected by direct election, and there was never a problem with candidates winning with 10% of the votes, despite the fact that there is no runoff election or IRV in nearly all states (Louisiana, California and Washington have their own kind of two-round system).
    At any rate, IRV or a runoff election prevents that difficulty, unless one of the candidates withdraws from the runoff. But for that matter, if we consider such highly unusual scenarios, less than 10% of the votes – or no votes at all, except for the votes of the electors in the Electoral College – would be enough with the current system.

  3. The Post column and your cited text give no reason why we should think that the electoral college prevents third party candidates from running. It just asserts it as if it were the case. As such, I think we should suspend judgment until such a case can be made and argued.

    I am more inclined to think that the structural reinforcement of a host of policies keeps third party candidates out in almost every state, and that it is gross oversimplification to think that barring third party candidate is a main reason/or the only reason.

    As Angra points out below too, governors are directly elected, and if people are trusted with the responsibility of electing one-level down from the Federal level, then why should citizens not be allowed to directly elect the President by popular vote?

    And by the way, if you are going to make an analogy to Plantinga’s free will defense (do you mean his EAAN), then you should draw out the analogy. That would at least be better than passing off assertion as mere fact.



  4. “The Post column and your cited text give no reason why we should think that the electoral college prevents third party candidates from running. It just asserts it as if it were the case. As such, I think we should suspend judgment until such a case can be made and argued.”

    Huh? It doesn’t prevent them from running. Gary Johnson and others ran. Did you mean “from willing”? It doesn’t prevent that either. But it makes it very unlikely since by definition a third party behind in the political game and one needs a majority of electoral college votes otherwise it goes to the House where the 3rd party member will likely be doomed.

  5. Federal level, then why should citizens not be allowed to directly elect the President by popular vote?

    Because California and New York would elect every president. The rest of the states might as well not vote. Federalism and state rights would further be eradicated.

  6. Urban II,

    Texas has a much larger population than New York, and apparently Florida has a slightly larger population than New York too. Also, the people in state other than California or New York would vote as well, and all of them together would actually cast many more votes than those in California or New York.
    However, that’s also the right way to look at that, since it would not be a state matter at all. The matter would be similar to governor races: In governor races, the votes of people from different counties are weighed equally, and it’s not the case that only the most populous counties elect the governor. In fact, counties do not elect the governor at all. Voters do, by majority or plurality (depending on the system).
    In a direct presidential election, also states would not elect the POTUS. Voters would, by majority or by plurality (depending on the system).
    The vote of a Californian would weigh no more and no less than the vote of a Wyomingite.
    Regarding state powers, of course some systems give more power to the states than others. A direct election would reduce the powers of the states with respect to the current system, but for that matter, in the current system, also the most populous states get more electoral votes, even though not in proportion to their population. A more federal system (i.e., increased state power with respect to the current system) would give – for example – two electors to each state – just like the Senate -, and then California or Texas would get no more power than Arizona and Wyoming.

  7. Urban II,

    One more point, regarding people who might as well not vote:
    In a direct election system, the vote for POTUS of any voter (regardless of state) weighs the same as the vote for POTUS of any other voter, so the system doesn’t discourage people from voting due to the state they’re in.
    But consider, in the current system, a right-winger in California. He reckons that if he votes, his vote is not a vote for POTUS, but a vote for Californian electors, and realistically, they will all be Democrats. So, the right-winger might think he might as well stay home instead of voting. But in a direct election system, he can count on his vote being counted as a vote for POTUS, even if he’s in a solid blue state. A left-winger in a deep red state with a winner-takes-all system for electors might stay home with the current system for a similar reason. But in a direct election, she can know her vote will count as a vote for POTUS as much as the vote of a Californian.

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