An engineer by education, Fitzgerald is a part-time writer with interests in history, science, politics, geography, literature, and poetry.
Do I Need a Student Loan to Attend?
For the uninitiated, the Electoral College in U.S. politics is not an institution of higher learning, or really any learning at all. The name ‘college’ draws on an older definition that essentially means a gathering of persons, usually of high status, to elect a leader of high dignity. For example, you may hear of the College of Cardinals who gather together to elect the next Pope.1 A historical example are the Prince Electors of the Holy Roman Empire who formed an electoral college to elect the next Emperor (and to be more precise, they were actually electing the King of the Romans who would only become emperor once crowned by the Pope).2
Best Laid Plans
Still, while these contemporary and ancient institutions may be interesting, for our purposes, the Electoral College in the United States is designed by the Constitution to elect the president every four years. Workings of the college are described in Article II Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution as modified by the Twelfth Amendment. Interestingly, the name “Electoral College” is never used in the Constitution, only the term Electors; and the Electors never actually meet as a body; instead, they are gathered separately within each State.3
The Electoral College was originally designed so that voters would elect a local luminary, someone they could trust to represent their interests in electing a president. Electioneering was difficult before mass communications and travel. Therefore, the founders thought the average voter would be better off electing someone local they could trust instead of a random person running for president that they know very little about.4
As American as Mississippi Mud
However, two trends started to emerge. The first was that political parties negated the need to know much about the candidates. Voters aligned with a party and whoever represented the party would be the best candidates for voters to choose. While some of the founders detested political parties, notably George Washington, parties were probably an inevitable development. This substituted judgements of character with policy. However, the reality is that judging character is hard to impossible, especially for a large diffuse electorate. Even if confined to an electoral college, elections based on policy preferences—and distilled through political parties—is much easier.5
The second development was the realization by States that awarding their entire block of electors to a single candidate would give the state more relative influence. So, states started to award all electors to whichever candidate won a plurality of the votes. This is still the same system the vast majority of states use today.6
Opposition to the Antiquated
Opponents of the Electoral College point out that the system is anchorastic, harking back to a less democratic country. They claim that a nationwide popular vote would be more democratic—that in fact, two recent presidential elections resulted in the candidate with the most votes nationwide lost. This is the idea of one person-one vote.7
Democracy: Matter of Opinion
While at first glance this does sound more democratic, the reality is that most of the people in the nation concentrate in cities; therefore giving cities an outsized influence on presidential elections allowing candidates to summarily ignore the interests of the more rural population. The existing electoral college does not ignore the urban voters as ultimately the popular vote—within each state—can overcome any rural minority.
However, the existing system does balance elections to allow more rural voters greater influence. A nationwide popular vote would effectively obliterate any rural influence and also any small state influence. Not only would large states have an outsized advantage, actual cities would dominate. Since urban voters would all pool their voters together, policies that favor urban voters would outperform at the ballot box over any rural policies as these could be safely ignored.8
Under the current system, even states with large cities still have to contend within their states with their rural voters; it is possible that the rural voters could from time to time out vote the urban voters and send their preferred electors. However, under a nationwide popular vote, the cities could effectively out vote and enforce urban interests over rural interests.
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Tyranny of the Majority
In a system designed with checks and balances, curbing democratic tendencies is the norm. The electoral college is one such check. It is not a foregone conclusion that greater democracy is always best. The rule of the many should ultimately prevail, but never at the expense of minority rights; only in preserving rights should the majority rule, but only after persistent success to ensure that whims of the mob do degenerate society.
If the electoral college needs reform, it is in the practice of electing actual electors—who are theoretically free to vote their conscience and not necessarily their voter’s preferences. However, the awarding of a fixed number of voters per state, based mostly on the state’s population as reflected in the state's allocated Congressional Representatives, should remain.9
4. Beeman R. (2009) Plain, Honest Men: The Making Of The American Constitution. New York, NY: Random House
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 W J Fitzgerald