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In Defence of the Electoral College

An engineer by education, Fitzgerald is a part-time writer with interests in history, science, politics, geography, literature, and poetry.

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution; by Junius Brutus Stearns (1856), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution; by Junius Brutus Stearns (1856), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

The Execution of Robespierre; by unknown painter (circ. 1794), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Execution of Robespierre; by unknown painter (circ. 1794), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

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

Citations

1. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/cardinals/the-college-of-cardinals/the-college-of-cardinals

2. http://www.holyromanempireassociation.com/prince-elector-of-the-holy-roman-empire.html

3. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

4. Beeman R. (2009) Plain, Honest Men: The Making Of The American Constitution. New York, NY: Random House

5. https://www.ushistory.org/us/19c.asp

6. https://www.fairvote.org/how-the-electoral-college-became-winner-take-all

7. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/09/10/winner-take-all-electoral-college-votes-unfair-unconstitutional-column/2264012001/

8. http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/us-cities-factsheet

9. https://www.archives.gov/electoral-college/about

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

Comments

mvymvy on February 26, 2020:

Past presidential candidates with a public record of support, before November 2016, for the National Popular Vote bill that would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate with the most national popular votes: Bob Barr (Libertarian- GA), U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R–GA), Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO), and Senator Fred Thompson (R–TN).

Newt Gingrich summarized his support for the National Popular Vote bill by saying: “No one should become president of the United States without speaking to the needs and hopes of Americans in all 50 states. … America would be better served with a presidential election process that treated citizens across the country equally. The National Popular Vote bill accomplishes this in a manner consistent with the Constitution and with our fundamental democratic principles.”

Eight former national chairs of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have endorsed the bill

In 2017, Saul Anuzis and Michael Steele, the former chairmen of the Michigan and national Republican parties, wrote that the National Popular Vote bill was “an idea whose time has come”.

On March 7, 2019, the Delaware Senate passed the National Popular Vote bill in a bi-partisan 14-7 vote

In 2018, the National Popular Vote bill in the Michigan Senate was sponsored by a bipartisan group of 25 of the 38 Michigan senators, including 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

The bill was approved in 2016 by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).

In 2016 the Arizona House of Representatives passed the bill 40-16-4.

Two-thirds of the Republicans and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Arizona House of Representatives sponsored the bill.

In January 2016, two-thirds of the Arizona Senate sponsored the bill.

In 2014, the Oklahoma Senate passed the bill by a 28–18 margin.

In 2009, the Arkansas House of Representatives passed the bill

mvymvy on February 26, 2020:

Trump, October 12, 2017 in Sean Hannity interview

“I would rather have a popular vote. “

Trump, November 13, 2016, on “60 Minutes”

“ I would rather see it, where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes, and somebody else gets 90 million votes, and you win. There’s a reason for doing this. Because it brings all the states into play.”

In 2012, the night Romney lost, Trump tweeted.

"The phoney electoral college made a laughing stock out of our nation. . . . The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy."

In 1969, The U.S. House of Representatives voted 338–70 for a national popular vote.

Presidential candidates who supported direct election of the President in the form of a constitutional amendment, before the National Popular Vote bill was introduced: George H.W. Bush (R-TX-1969), Bob Dole (R-KS-1969), Gerald Ford (R-MI-1969), Richard Nixon (R-CA-1969)

mvymvy on February 26, 2020:

Voters in the biggest cities in the US have been almost exactly balanced out by rural areas in terms of population and partisan composition.

59,849,899 people live in the 100 biggest cities.

59,492,267 people live in rural America.

16% of the U.S. population lives outside the nation's Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Rural America has voted 60% Republican. None of the 10 most rural states matter now.

16% of the U.S. population lives in the top 100 cities. They voted 63% Democratic in 2004.

The population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States.

The rest of the U.S., in SUBurbs, divide almost exactly equally between Republicans and Democrats.

mvymvy on February 26, 2020:

Now, the Electoral College would not prevent a candidate winning in states with 270 electoral votes from being elected President of the United States

Now 48 states have winner-take-all state laws for awarding electoral votes to the statewide winner.

2 award one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district, and two electoral votes statewide.

Neither method is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

The electors have been and will be dedicated party activist supporters of the winning party’s candidate who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

The current system does not provide some kind of check on the "mobs." There have been 24,067 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 31 have been cast in a deviant way, for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party (one clear faithless elector, 29 grand-standing votes, and one accidental vote). 1796 remains the only instance when the elector might have thought, at the time he voted, that his vote might affect the national outcome.

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on February 22, 2020:

I agree that the electoral college should be defended, as the title of your Hub suggests. Yes, the founders wanted to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority as you mentioned.

Another advantage is to promote national unity by insuring differing areas of the nation are not marginalized by a simple majority vote. You mentioned balancing the interests of rural voters with urban majorities, this addresses this issue directly.

As a rule, most governmental arrangements worldwide do not work very well, tampering with one that has served us so well would be at our peril. In these times of increasing political polarity, we need the electoral college as a check and balance to majority power.

AL from South Equator, East Pacific on February 21, 2020:

Very interesting article, I have always been curious to know how the electoral college is democratic. Honestly, I still believe it is lukewarm democracy. I understand the need to represent the minority rural blocks and preventing larger urban blocks from overshadowing their votes. At the same time I believe the electoral college gives the minority too much power over the majority. If a candidate is elected by a minority block, what is going to stop that candidate from only addressing the needs of the minority block that got him elected at the expense of the larger majority.

Its a good system, but it's very easy for candidates to manipulate if they understand the demographics of the country very well.