Critics of the much-maligned Electoral College overlook one of its fundamental virtues: tamping down dangerously divisive politics. Advocates of replacing this “18th-century anachronism” with a straight popular vote implicitly assume the current two-party system would remain intact and that the candidate with the most individual votes—instead of electoral votes—would win the White House. That’s the way things work for every other elected office in the U.S.; why wouldn’t it be so for the most important one of all?
But the basic two-party arrangement we take for granted exists only because of the Electoral College. To win the presidency, a candidate has to appeal to people across the country. A nationwide coalition is essential to gaining a majority in the Electoral College. A narrow sectional or special-interest base simply won’t cut it. That’s why our parties are collections of many diverse interests and backgrounds, reflecting the character of this continental nation whose citizens, or forebears, have come from all corners of the world and reflect a wide array of cultures and beliefs. It’s why supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties are so often uneasy with one another. GOP voters in the Northeast, for instance, who tend to emphasize economic issues such as low taxes, are put off by social conservatives.
The system puts a premium on moderation. Yes, candidates can advocate bold programs, but they have to do so in ways that don’t alienate more tepid members of their party, not to mention independent voters. A radical idea usually goes through what might be called a marinating process, during which time people become accustomed to the notion, and even then it has often become a watered-down version of the original.