In Federalist No. 68, his pseudonymous essay on “The Mode of Electing the President,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College could shield the United States “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Because of the “transient existence” and dispersed makeup of the electors, he argued, hostile countries would find it too expensive and time-consuming to inject “sinister bias” into the process of choosing a president. At the time, the new American leaders feared meddling from Great Britain, their former colonial master, or perhaps from other powers such as France, and they designed a system to minimize the prospect that Europe’s aging monarchies could seize control of their young democracy. Hamilton and his colleagues never could have envisioned a year like 2016, when an enemy state—Russia—was able to manipulate America’s election process with stunning effectiveness. But it’s clear the national security rationale for the Electoral College is outdated and therefore it should be retired. Simply put, it enables foreign powers to more easily pierce the very shield Hamilton imagined it would be.
In Hamilton’s day, as he argued, it would have been nearly impossible for a hostile power to co-opt dozens of briefly chosen electors flung across 13 states with primitive roads. But in the social media age, the Electoral College system provides ripe microtargeting grounds for foreign actors who intend to sabotage presidential elections via information and disinformation campaigns, as well as by hacking our voting infrastructure. One reason is that citizens in certain states simply have more voting power than citizens in other states, such as Texas and California. This makes it easier for malign outside forces to direct their efforts.
But what if the national popular vote determined the president instead of the Electoral College? No voter would be more electorally powerful than another. It would be more difficult for a foreign entity to sway many millions of voters scattered across the country than concentrated groups of tens of thousands of voters in just a few states. And it would be more difficult to tamper with voting systems on a nationwide basis than to hack into a handful of databases in crucial swing districts, which could alter an election’s outcome. Yes, a foreign entity could disseminate messages to major cities across the entire country or try to carry out a broad-based cyberattack, but widespread actions of this sort would be not only more resource-intensive, but also more easily noticed, exposed and addressed.
Congressional investigators are currently examining Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has publicly called out Russian microtargeting in 2016 swing states. In March, Warner highlighted reports of “upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a botnet,” and he raised the question of whether these trolls targeted voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Donald Trump, of course, won those three states by a combined total of fewer than 80,000 votes, securing him an Electoral College victory and a four-year trip to the Oval Office, despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.