The National Popular Vote as Regime Change

March 6, 2019 Updated: March 6, 2019


At the outset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lamented the Southern states’ rejection of his election and insisted that ballots are “the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets.” But, as Lincoln discovered, ballots are only as good as the trust citizens have in the constitutional structure that supports them.

Once that trust is gone, ballots are only good for wadding muskets.

Colorado recently joined a coalition with 11 other states to support a national popular vote for presidential elections. This coalition attempts to get around the Constitution’s electoral college by guaranteeing 270 electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. The compact would only come into effect if enough states join whose collective electoral votes equal 270.

This movement is part of a larger effort to democratize the U.S. regime by eliminating the equal status of each state. For example, more and more one hears complaints about each state—regardless of population—having two senators. One even hears calls to get rid of states completely. These are attacks on the institution of federalism in the Constitution.

At the same time, however, with President Donald Trump in the White House, progressive states are discovering an appreciation for federalism when it comes to protecting progressive policies and limiting the enforcement of federal immigration laws. It seems that heavily populated states want to have a larger slice of the political cake and eat it too.

This ambivalence raises a fundamental question about the nature of the U.S. regime. In our federal republic, is the “federal” part essential? If so, then measures to undermine federalism are ultimately attempts at regime change and will undermine trust in the whole constitutional structure that enables ballots to replace bullets.

The Justice of Federalism

Those who favor getting rid of the electoral college and the equality of states in the Senate say that those institutions are undemocratic. This is a serious complaint, because it’s based on a claim about justice and so must be answered with a response from justice.

The objection one hears from those who would abolish these “undemocratic” institutions is summed up in the phrase “every vote equal.” The logic is simple: Every person is equal, and so every person ought to have one vote and that it be equal to everyone else’s in the country. Thus, it is unjust for a person in Wyoming to have a more heavily weighted vote than a person in California—3.6 to 1 for presidential elections to be exact. This logic makes a fair amount of sense, and its reference to equality even seems to ring with the lofty claims of the Declaration of Independence.

The “every vote equal” argument is fallacious, though. It fails to recognize that the equality of individuals the Declaration of Independence proclaims is an equality in natural rights, which includes the right to associate in political communities. Our federal Constitution comprehends political communities in our country as states. The only legitimate basis for the political communities called states is the social compact made by the individuals who formed it and those who continue to consent to it. 

As the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 declared in its preamble: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”

Through political association, the Constitution comprehends the equal rights of individuals as represented in their individual state as well as the United States. Thus, to deny the citizens of Wyoming their equal status as a political community is to deny the equal rights of the individuals who compose it.

The Utility of Federalism

Federalism is not only a just institution, it’s useful too. Our founders thought there was a world of difference between a consolidated nation and a federal one. They held that rule over a large, consolidated territory could only be administered by an oppressive and centralized bureaucracy that would inhibit cooperation necessary to practice self-government and to resist tyranny.

In a 1791 essay titled “Consolidation,” James Madison wrote“[W]ere the state governments abolished, … neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.”

Furthermore, the founders believed that as states provide necessary space for cooperative activity, they also provide a forum for citizens to talk and deliberate about local affairs over which they have control. Without states, Madison continued, “the impossibility of acting together, might be succeeded by the inefficacy of partial expressions of the public mind, and this at length, by a universal silence and insensibility, leaving the whole government to that self-directed course, which, it must be owned, is the natural propensity of every government.” (original emphasis)

Because governments naturally tend toward greater centralization and thus depoliticization on an individual level, states act as intermediary institutions for citizens to retain and exercise self-government. States also help decentralize power and function as valuable bulwarks against tyranny.

Experience and reason both affirm that the electoral college and bicameral legislature—representing both the equality of individuals and the equality of states—help support the most just and useful form of republican government ever devised for a large territory. The compromise between more and less populated states formed the basis for mutual trust in the Constitution from the very beginning. That compromise forms what Lincoln called the “constitutional majority,” which is “the only true sovereign of a free people.” Dissolve that compromise, and you dissolve the trust supporting the whole structure.

The chances of success for invalidating the electoral college and abolishing the equality of the Senate are modest. Their object, though, is revolutionary: to create a confederacy of population centers by diminishing the political influence of less-populated states under the guise of constitutionality. Regime change by any other name would smell as rotten.

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.