A Rural Defense of the Electoral College

 

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It has been almost a month since election day and rural America has spoken. President-elect Donald Trump’s margins in rural communities helped him to defeat Hillary Clinton, despite her winning 2.5 million more raw votes nationwide. Clinton’s strength was primarily in urban areas. I’m not going to give you another thought piece on why rural voters for Trump. As I mentioned in my pre-election day post, Trump did a better job of reaching out to rural voters. I underestimated the extent to which this would help him but it nonetheless was what helped carry him to victory. Since Trump’s victory, there have been widespread calls for the abolishment of the electoral college. Despite this space endorsing Hillary Clinton, we acknowledge the value that the electoral college has and believe that it should remain. The electoral college serves a valuable role in presidential politics, it ensures that a candidate is well versed in the issues of a wide electorate. A candidate cannot simply run up the score by winning in the major cities, they have to know the issues of not just Portland, Oregon but also Portland, Maine. In this post, I will make my case for the electoral college and why it is a valuable institution.

Diversity of Issues

“Tyranny of the majority,” this is what the electoral college primarily serves to prevent. In a country that is rapidly urbanizing, getting rid of the electoral college would result in candidates focusing primarily on the issues of urban and suburban voters. As Hillary Clinton proved in this election, you could win the popular vote by a significant margin largely without the support of rural voters. Let’s be clear – this is not a good thing for the country. The United States of America is a large and geographically diverse country. The issues of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are nothing like the issues of Bangor, Fargo, and Flagstaff. A voter in rural Maine has different economic concerns than a voter in Boston. The electoral college forces a candidate to reckon with all of these concerns.

The President also has a myriad of responsibilities that forces them to be responsive to the needs of the wider population. The President is responsible for nominating a Secretary of Agriculture, who will largely oversee a program that deals almost entirely in rural America. They also nominate a Secretary of the Interior, who again will oversee a program that also deals almost entirely in rural America. The President also nominates a Secretary of Education, who oversees programs that help to educate rural Americans, an Attorney General, who ensures that justice is appropriately carried out in rural communities, and a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which despite its title also oversees grant funding and other programs that affect housing in rural communities. Given the vast scope of the executive branch, rural citizens have a vested interest in ensuring that the President understands them and their communities.

“Why does my vote matter less?”

If you live in a dense urban area, it would be easy to ask the question of “why does my vote matter less than someone in a rural area?” I’ve seen graphics that compare the “voting power” of a voter in California vs. (for example) Wyoming. This is an overly simplistic approach to answering this question. This is also a question that predates our current governance structure. Anyone who remembers the “Connecticut Compromise” in 1787 knows that each state has equal representation in the United States Senate because of the fear that the issues of large states would come to overpower those of the small states. The issue of proportional representation is addressed by United States House of Representatives (gerrymandering perverts this, obviously).

As an illustration, we could ask the question: Why does Vermont have two Senators when the state’s population is smaller than 27 US cities? Because the framers of the Constitution recognized that the interests of smaller states like Vermont or Maine would be ignored in a legislature that was elected purely by proportional representation. The issue of balancing large vs. small state interests was at the center of the formation of our country. By giving votes to the individual states, the electoral college also ensures that the executive branch is responsive to the concerns of the wide variety of geographies and economic realities represented in the individual states.

Out of Site, Out of Mind

Another issue with abolishing the electoral college is that it contributes to the marginalization of populations that live in relative isolation. For example, if it were to be abolished, voters who live in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio would simply be ignored. The issues of voters in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio however are similar to the issues of voters in the coal mining areas of West Virginia and Kentucky. Likewise for voters in the battleground state of New Hampshire, their issues are also similar to those of voters in Maine and Vermont. By forcing candidates to focus on these areas, it brings more attention to the issues that these communities face. A great example is the heroin and opioid epidemic. In a structure that does not incentivize reaching out to rural communities, this epidemic could have very likely been ignored. Instead there is a bill that just passed the U.S. House that would provide $1 billion in funding to distressed communities to aid in fighting it.

The issues of rural America are unique and deserve attention. In many rural communities, for example, you have a declining economy because of declining manufacturing. If you are focusing on winning a popular election however, you would talk about how great the larger economy is. After all, unemployment is down substantially under President Obama. However, job growth in this country has been starkly unequal. Urban communities are booming whereas rural communities are largely stagnant or declining. This may be perhaps where Donald Trump had his greatest success. While Hillary Clinton was talking about the recovery under President Obama, Trump was talking about the economic fears of rural voters. He talked about how jobs had left and how we needed to bring them back. No matter how much Clinton talked about the economy, it did not resonate with voters that have been left behind by the recovery because it was not the reality that they were seeing.  As we saw with the results of the popular vote, getting rid of the electoral college would incentivize not talking about the economic struggles of rural communities. The electoral college however proved that you have to talk about and address these issues.

Conclusion

Rural America matters. In an increasingly urban America, shifting away from the electoral college would marginalize rural America, its people, and its issues. The electoral college is an effective buffer against the urbanization of our country because it forces presidential candidates to focus on issues affecting a large amount of the country and not the urban areas that would deliver enough votes to win a national popular vote. If a presidential candidate can win by running up the score in urban communities then we run the risk of rural communities largely being excluded from national electoral politics. In a situation that does not value their input, it is unlikely to be received. The electoral college ensures that rural communities have a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation.

Addendum: The current “winner take all” electoral college system does contribute to the marginalization of rural voters in reliably “red” or “blue” states and I want to thank a reader for pointing this out. We agree that a proportional system (similar to Maine and Nebraska) would give voice to rural voters in New York, California, and Illinois (for example). This space is not opposed to reforms to the electoral college, though we recognize its value as a mechanism for forcing candidates to reckon with and become knowledgeable about issues affecting a wide variety of areas. On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway even admitted that she would have focused more on “population rich” areas if the electoral college did not exist. This is why the electoral college must remain, even if it needs reform.

Christopher Chavis

About Christopher Chavis

Chris is a 2012 graduate of Dartmouth College and a 2015 graduate of Michigan State University College of Law. He currently works as a non-profit, anti-poverty consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his spare time, he is a rural poverty advocate and news junkie with a passion for reading and writing about all things rural. In the past, he has lived in rural Maine, New Hampshire, and North Carolina and his academic background has focused heavily on rural social policy and resource allocation. Because of the lengthy time that he lived in rural New England, he is also a huge Boston sports fan.