Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Not Perfect, But Excellent

In one of the more bizarre twists in this incredibly bizarre year, Donald Trump now questions the legitimacy of ballots cast in an election that he won.

Faced with a recount in Michigan that he opposes, but that is almost certain to confirm his victory, Trump has once again taken to Twitter to rail about a "rigged" system -- though apparently it's rigged only in the states he lost.

What he really seems to be responding to is the fact that, though he is the president-elect, Hillary Clinton bested him by more than 2 million votes in the popular tally. That fact has Democrats responding as well, arguing that the Electoral College system should, as Sen. Barbara Boxer proposes, be abolished, or as Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes, be re-examined.

We beg to differ.

Suppose presidential candidates engaged in a national election instead of one focused on the outcome in each state: The airwaves would be even more inundated with ads in a campaign waged almost entirely in the media. As it is now, candidates have to learn about and respond to what's going on in the vastly diverse states of the nation, and in their vastly diverse populations.

It's no accident that the last time Congress debated abolishing the Electoral College, after the nail-biter 1968 election, some of the strongest voices of opposition came from the few African-American House members and from Jewish organizations lobbying from the outside. Though Jews make up only 2 percent of the American population, an insignificant number on a nationwide ballot, the number climbs to 5 percent in all-important Florida -- enough to swing the state.

That story is replicated in state after state with different groups. African-Americans might be only 13 percent of the population, but their votes gave Barack Obama his 2012 margin of victory in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Michigan. Georgia, now considered solidly Republican, might soon be in play because of the 29 percent of the voters there who are black.

The growing political clout of Latinos has been much heralded, but they are still only 12 percent of eligible voters nationwide. It's their strength in states like Nevada and Colorado that made them a force to be reckoned with in this election, a force that could turn Arizona and Texas from red to purple the next time around.

That fluidity is another characteristic of the Electoral College system. Battleground states in one or two campaign cycles can become safe states for one party or the other in later contests.

Look at bright-blue California -- it voted Democratic only once between 1952 and 1988. Or vivid-red West Virginia, which was one of the handful of states to go for the Democratic nominee in 1980 and 1988. And Hillary Clinton's solid "blue wall" crumbled this time around. The ups and downs of the system are such that both parties have, at different times, been alleged to hold an "Electoral College lock."

It's because of the Electoral College that shifting demographics result in shifting outcomes. It's the ultimate defense against the "tyranny of the majority" that the Founders feared. Designed to protect small states against domination by large ones, it has come to protect smaller population groups from larger ones.

That's not just true in terms of people, it's also true in terms of policy. Had the 2016 campaign been waged only in the densely populated coastal states that can determine the popular vote, would the aggrieved voices of the out-of-work and out-of-sorts voters of the rust belt been heard? Donald Trump is right that he paid attention to their pain while Hillary Clinton took those voters for granted, ignoring them while focusing on turning out minorities and young people.

In 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election, then-senator-elect Clinton called for the abolition of the Electoral College, adding: "We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago." That's certainly true. But it's also true that as Alexander Hamilton wrote then of the system devised to choose a president, "If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent ... It was also particularly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder."

This year we've had enough tumult and disorder. We don't need to tinker with the method of electing our presidents to give us more, even if the winner calls it a "rigged system."

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