Why We Should Not Expel the Electoral College

A defense of America’s method for electing the president.

It is periodically fashionable for some Americans to question the electoral college, the mechanism used to elect the commander-in-chief. These individuals couch their position in language that portrays the staid institution as primitive or outdated. A recent petition circulated by the “progressive” MoveOn.org characteristically tries to make the case that the electoral college “has outlived its usefulness” and that it, along with the Constitution itself, was “written when communication was by Pony Express.”

This is curious rhetoric. One would do well to point out that the Pony Express point is an intellectually lazy one because that system actually came into existence in the late 1850’s, more than half a century after the Constitution was penned. The larger point, though, is that when the electoral college was installed has little bearing on how valid it is as an election mechanism. The reason for this is that the problem of political order is as old as human society itself. While our technology and culture may change with time, the core issues at stake with how human society is organized are timeless. It is my contention that the electoral college is an effective, albeit imperfect method for electing the president of the United States and that it should be preserved. To fully appreciate the brilliance of the electoral college, one must understand not only the way that it operates but the history behind its inception.

The electoral college is a system whereby Americans indirectly elect the president. Each state receives one electoral vote for each representative it has in the House of Representatives, plus another electoral vote for each of its two senators. Currently, the states possess 435 representatives and 100 senators between them. Additionally, the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution provides Washington DC, the capital of the federal government, with three electoral votes. There are therefore 538 total electoral votes to allocate for president and a candidate must receive at least 270 to proclaim victory.

Though a state cannot unilaterally decide how many electoral votes it receives, it does have the ability to determine how to allocate the electoral votes that it possesses. On election day, voters cast their ballots in their home state. As the votes are tallied and the states determine the winning candidate in their jurisdiction, electoral votes are “called” for the candidates in the national election. Aside from Nebraska and Maine, all of the states employ a “winner-take-all” approach whereby the candidate that receives the most votes in the state receives all the electoral votes in that state. If there is a situation wherein no candidate for president receives at least 270 electoral votes, the president is elected by a vote in the House of Representatives while the vice president is elected by the Senate.

The individuals that cast the electoral votes in each state are known as “electors” and they take an oath to vote for the candidate that does the best in the state election that they serve. Curiously, there is a possibility that individual electors diverge from their state’s prescription; Such a person is known as a “faithless elector.” This has occurred in American history, but it is a rare phenomenon that is discouraged with state laws which levy a fine on such behavior. These laws have never been challenged in the courts, however, so there is some doubt as to whether such statutes are constitutional.

This is what is meant when it is said that America is not a democracy, but a republic. By definition, a democracy is a system of government where the prevailing power is unlimited majority rule. A society that restricts voting to specific matters can be called democratic, but it is technically not a full-fledged democracy. In a pure democracy,  the people would be able to vote not just on taxes and parades, but also on whether it is valid to dispose the life or property of specific individuals. One need only recall the story of Socrates, who was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth” by vote in Ancient Athens, to see the dark side of unrestricted democracy. The electoral college entrusts the electors to vote as representatives of the general population.

Why allow a select group to cast the final ballots for the president rather than open it up, Athenian style, to the general populace? It is no secret that the American founding fathers, contrary to what some may believe, were not huge fans of direct democracy. Former president James Madison argued extensively in Federalist 10 that, with regards to government, “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Alexander Hamilton, the man who would go on to serve as the first Treasury Secretary and inspire a hit Broadway musical, was a monarchist sympathizer of the British system of government and sharply criticized the bloodshed in the French Revolution. Fans of the musical may be surprised that Hamilton believed that the greatest threat to American liberty, apart from the return of the British army to North America, was mob rule.  Ben Franklin, never at a loss for witty aphorisms, quipped that democracy is on a par with two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner.

The founding fathers sought to limit the “tyranny of the majority” caused by a democratic system when they drafted the Constitution. The method that they elected to use in this mission was federalism, a system of government where power is divided between a large, central governing body and smaller, regional governments. The founding fathers understood that if the United States was overly centralized the government would lose touch with people on a local level because traditions and culture differ from state to state. On the other hand, if there were no centralization at all then the states would be less able to protect themselves from foreign aggression. The US Constitution also limits the extent to which democracy plays a role in American politics by restricting what we can and cannot vote for. America can this be said to be a democratic, or representative, republic.

Apart from granting several powers to the state governments, the American founding fathers also implemented a system of checks and balances between the branches of the federal government to make it more difficult for any one person or political party to fully control it. The Congress is tasked with legislating, the president is tasked with enforcing the legislation passed by Congress and the Supreme Court is tasked with ensuring that the actions of the prior two branches are in accordance with the Constitution. Madison succinctly encapsulated the benefits of federalism when he wrote in Federalist 47 that “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Like all federalist devices, the electoral college represents an attempt to mitigate the negative effects of democracy while still allowing for the common man to have a say in who his ruler is.

There are persistent opponents of the electoral college to this day, despite the arguments of the founders. Traditionally, these opponents have been agents of the Democratic party dating back to its creation under President Andrew Jackson. The most common objection raised by Jacksonian Democrats applies to the most recent election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, wherein Clinton won the popular vote but Trump won the election with over 300 electoral votes. The basic idea is that because more individual people voted for Clinton than for Trump the electoral college failed to account for the true tastes of the voters. Critics contend that a direct, popular vote is a better approach to elect the president.

This argument overlooks the federalist character of the USA. The Constitution was originally ratified with the understanding that the federal government was created by the states, not the other way around. When the states ratified the Constitution they delegated some powers to the federal government and retained the remainder, as per the Tenth Amendment. The federal government, then, was created not by the act of a single, united American people but rather the various peoples of each individual state. As such, it is the states that select the president, not the populace at large. It is not the people of the US that elect the president but rather the people of each state that elect the president. If there were a direct election by popular vote, the largest and most populous cities would carry a disproportionate weight in the election. The states that have more populous cities, such as Texas and California, would overshadow the states with smaller cities such as Wyoming and Delaware. The result is a complete collapse of individual state sovereignty and representation.

Advocates for the popular vote may argue that the electoral system also disenfranchises states, it just does so for a different set of them. Under the electoral system, presidential candidates spend a majority of their time and ad money in the so-called “swing states” such as Iowa and Florida and less time in stronghold states such as Alabama and New York. This view is also misguided. The truth is that the median voters in any election decide the outcome because the voters at the extreme ends cancel each other out; this is a basic mathematical fact. In a direct popular vote, a simple majority would be able to elect the president without a need to appeal to the minority position at all. The electoral college shifts this “median voter effect” to the state level and makes it more difficult to overlook those with a minority position.

To see why this is, let’s look at a short example. Consider a minority group that numbers approximately half a percent of the total population; as of 2016, this is a group of about 1.5 million people overall. In a direct popular vote their voice is a drop in the bucket and no candidate worth their salt would appeal to such a small niche group. Now suppose a modest, politically conscious chunk of that minority group moved to a state with a smaller population, say Wyoming with a population of half a million. If even one tenth of our beleaguered minority group lived in Wyoming, then they would comprise nearly 30% of the total population of Wyoming, a sizable percentage. When it comes time to campaign, the candidate that seeks to gain the electoral votes in Wyoming would be unable to simply ignore the minority group and they would have a better chance of getting their voice heard in the national election. There is a useful side effect here that the state politics of Wyoming would be more conducive to the goals and interests of the minority group. Apart from casting ballots every four years, individuals vote with their feet all the time when they move to different states.

American federalism remains an innovative solution to the problem of political order. This is not the first time in history that aspersions were cast on the electoral college system and it will not be the last. We should be suspicious of those that seek to overturn it not by refuting the arguments that gave rise to it, but by portraying it as old and outdated. Tyrannical government, after all, is older than federalism; I leave it to you to decide which is the more primitive relic.

Author: Roberto Guzman Jr

Programmer by trade, writer by passion.

9 thoughts on “Why We Should Not Expel the Electoral College”

  1. The only reason for keeping the electoral college is that it is generally able to select a winner from the vote when there is only a plurality winner. That is because most states choose to assign their electors winner-take-all.

    On minorities… Lots of minority groups are disenfranchised with the winner-take-all system. Republicans in California. Democrats in Texas. Asians apparently, because they live in politically polarized states according to buzzfeed. As a voter in a non-swing state, it is frustrating knowing my vote REALLY doesn’t matter. If the system didn’t bucket votes, everyone would at least feel they affected the outcome equally. Asking a minority to move to a less populated state in order to cast a vote (a meaningless action at the individual level) in a federal election is ridiculous.

    Go and read the wikipedia article about the history of the electoral college. The arguments for the constitutional components don’t make any sense at all. James Madison and several other “fathers” didn’t really like it. I would not lean on the innovation of American federalism in this case.

    The only other options to resolve pluralities that I’m aware of in the US are runoff and instant runoff elections. I’m attracted to the instant runoff style but I’m worried it is too complicated for say 10% of voters. I also feel that the major two parties in the US have an incentive to maintain the electoral college because it enshrines a two-party system with winner-take-all. An instant runoff election could lead to a 3rd party winning a major election if say the libertarian party were everyone’s 2nd choice!!

  2. You bring up some excellent points regarding 3rd parties. I would personally be open to a more sophisticated voting scheme, but there would need to be extensive work to determine the game-theoretic consequences before we even think about amending the Constitution.

    “Asking a minority to move to a less populated state in order to cast a vote (a meaningless action at the individual level) in a federal election is ridiculous.”

    I am not asking them to do any such thing, I am pointing out that pockets of communities that already tend to live together (e.g. Mormons, Amish, immigrant communities in ethnic neighborhoods, etc) have a decent shot of having their voice heard in less populous states. Large states have a problem regardless of which system you use, and the direct democracy vote is the most troublesome of all because your vote is quite literally mathematically meaningless in such a sea of people.

    “Go and read the wikipedia article about the history of the electoral college. The arguments for the constitutional components don’t make any sense at all. James Madison and several other “fathers” didn’t really like it. I would not lean on the innovation of American federalism in this case.”

    I did read this. Do you have a specific argument? Also, why quote the word “fathers”? I know there are as many “genders” as Baskin-Robbins flavors now, but last I checked they were men and had a formative influence on our system of government!

  3. LOL at pony express and Ben Franklin. I actually have no points of contention to this, it was very illuminating. I’m just curious as to why more states don’t break up their electoral votes like Nebraska and Maine? How would this affect elections?

  4. Sorry, didn’t want to write too long a comment! On the poor design of the electoral college:

    -James Madison’s quote (“there was one difficulty…”) shows that a big selling point of the electoral college was that it gave the south more voting power: they had fewer voters, so they would lose popular votes (if votes were correlated to north/south, and they surely were). The electoral college amplified their votes by giving them 3/5 credit for their slaves.

    This is not a relevant concern now. Suffrage is the same in every state for a presidential election.

    -Smaller states favored the electoral college out of concern larger states would control elections

    This feels like a hack, I don’t know why people who happen to live in smaller states should get more voting power than people who happen to live in larger states. I don’t even think the message is accurate: I believe candidates will spend their resources trying to tug at the median voters wherever they are. State size is not that relevant right?

    Also… one person one vote seems like a better system.

    -“Hamilton argued, electors meeting in the state capitals were able to have information unavailable to the general public” I don’t think is relevant in the age of the internet or TV or radio.

    -“”Hamilton also argued that since no federal officeholder could be an elector none of the electors would be beholden to any presidential candidate.” Electors are chosen to be loyal to their parties and to a candidate, this prediction was very wrong. It also invalidates the previous idea. Information doesn’t matter when electoral college is a rubber stamp.

    -James Madison didn’t want parties, but the combination of state and federal policy that is the electoral college leads to a two-party system. Winner take all at the state level seems like the nail in this coffin.

    -“Hamilton was also concerned about somebody unqualified, but with a talent for “low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity”, attaining high office.” I believe the electoral college’s system for resolving plurality votes by (generally) giving the plurality winner the victory leads to less desirable outcomes from a utility perspective than something like instant runoff where people’s 2nd and 3rd choices are taken into account.

    Tangent on primary voting: I voted for a non-Trump non-Cruz candidate in the primary which means my preference was basically discarded given my state’s formulas. If I could have I would have ranked several candidates above Trump.

    The fact that the candidate with fewer votes can win the general election, which seems more like an unintended consequence than a feature.

    Voting/ranking/decision theory has come a long way since the 19th century and both federal and state elections could be improved (especially around gerrymandering). I recently found CGP Grey’s youtube channel and he has a ton of informative and entertaining videos on voting alternatives. Here’s the first one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7tWHJfhiyo

  5. Thank you for this nicely researched and well formulated post. However, I disagree with your argument and your explanations.

    As I read it, you make one argument and two explanations. The argument is, you should not mess with the founding fathers’ intentions. You explain the founding fathers’ intentions thereafter as follows: 1. direct elections lead to “mob rule”, in other words a “tyranny of the majority”; 2. the electoral system preserves the federalist character of the United States.

    I don’t think your argument is valid. The founding fathers were not sent nor enlightened by some sort of a god, they were not infallible. Also, they lived more than two centuries ago. Their reality differed considerably from ours, in so many ways. Although you are right, a constitutions should be timeless and not subject to fashion, it is still important to review them from time to time. What has been true in 1782 is not necessarily true in 2016. As much as what the founding fathers might have gotten it right, would they have designed a constitution with a single person being commander in chief of armed forces that are able to literally obliterate all life on the entire planet? Who is to say.. It is not an easy task to alter the US constitution, but there’s to reason to curse those who seek to do so, just because it would disrespect the founding fathers’s wisdom.

    I also believe the first explanation is not valid. While it is honorable to prevent mob rule by excluding some subjects from majority decisions, this does not apply to elections. After all, only one person can be president at a time. There is no one to protect here. The electoral college in its current form is not designed to protect anyone. If electors were free to elect whomever they liked, it might even make some sense in this respect. But since they are not, it is just a way to even out discrepancies between single states.
    It is of course still sensible to exclude some material decisions from majority rulings. For example, in Germany no majority can legally abolish basic human rights, democracy, federalism or the rule of the law. Even a change of the constitution would make it possible. Only if an entirely new constitution would be implemented democratically it would be possible.

    The second explanation regarding the federalist character of the United States I regard as outdated. To me, the electoral college is a result of a federal power struggle between individual states, and between states and the federal government. Even if you consider the electoral college to mirror the fact that states elect the president rather than the general populace, the concept is simply outdated. It might have been valid back in the day, but it is no more now. When they go to the ballots, people presume they elect the president, not how their state should decide.

    On the question on how to prevent a president elected by a plurality, I think runoff elections is the way. This would also allow for third party candidates to stand a chance, which would be an improvement.

  6. Thanks for the feedback! You make some excellent points. I have a few remarks, to clarify a bit and to rebut some of them:

    1) I do not think the founding fathers were infallible; do I give that impression in the essay? I do think their ideas were good, but not perfect. I am not trying to argue that the principles of the founding fathers were good because they came from the founding fathers, as that would be an argument from authority. Instead, I try to argue that the ideas of the founding fathers with regards to political philosophy are objectively good and that is why we should listen to them. Likewise, the Constitution is good, but not perfect. This is why there is an amendment process to begin with. Note that I included a lot of the content from the founding fathers as a reply to people who think their intention was to set up a direct democracy.

    2) Time can introduce changes, but I do not think human nature has changed significantly since the time of the founding fathers. Technology has certainly changed and we have had much history since then that provides us some new insights, but the fact that we are individual creatures capable of reason has not changed. History provides ample evidence for ideas’ successes and failures. For instance, the founding fathers did not have the exposure that we have had to the history of socialism and fascism. They did not have the sophisticated software that we have today for communicating across long distances, etc. Despite this, their ideas regarding representative government and individual rights have many merits, and I have not heard a convincing argument for why the political concept of individual rights is somehow rendered obsolete in today’s world.

    3) I see the electoral college not so much as a protection of individual people but more as a system that best acknowledges that the United States is really 50 distinct societies molded together. I make the point in the essay that each state has a unique culture and heritage and that this means the people in each state have particular tastes and values. The whole point of federalism is decentralization: the idea that if power is divided, it is more difficult to end up with a tyrannical system. The reason that the electoral college system exists in this sense is to ensure that a presidential candidate can achieve the approval of several distinct societies and not just urban centers.

    4) I disagree heartily with your point that American federalism is outdated. It is true that after the American Civil War, the relationship of the federal government to the states changed dramatically (I may write a future essay about this, as it is an interesting topic). However, I think this change was not a good one and it is something that we as Americans should try to reverse. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution famously reserves those powers not mentioned in the Constitution to the state governments and not the federal government. Today, the federal government intrudes on many issues that are rightly reserved to the states under the Constitution. The reason that I think this is not outdated is because I think that local government is not outdated. Consider my earlier point that the US is really 50 smaller societies. Each state has its own problems and values that lead to a need for legislation that is particular to that particular state. New England states may care more about maritime law than Kansas. The more religious states may want to have laws that deal specifically with the church, etc. There are many cases where the federal government should not be involved, and it should be up to the individual states how they vote.

    5) I am open to alternative voting systems; the main alternative to the electoral college that I addressed in my essay was direct popular vote, which I think is highly problematic.

  7. “As such, it is the states that select the president, not the populace at large. It is not the people of the US that elect the president but rather the people of each state that elect the president. ”

    That’s all, folks.

  8. “As such, it is the states that select the president, not the populace at large. It is not the people of the US that elect the president but rather the people of each state that elect the president. ”

    Get it? Got it? Good!

  9. “I don’t think your argument is valid. The founding fathers were not sent nor enlightened by some sort of a god, they were not infallible.”

    Strawman: Nowhere does the author claim infallibility, yet this fact remains true: The USA is a union of STATES, and as stated: “it is the states that select the president, not the populace at large. It is not the people of the US that elect the president but rather the people of each state that elect the president”.

    “the concept is simply outdated.”

    How and when did it become “outdated’? Because you don’t care for it?

    Read Amendment X:

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

    When was that Amendment revoked? Further, we still have states with separate governments, each state sending its representatives to Congress – the states are the cornerstone of our Constitution. The EC is another manifestation of the same principle. The concept of the States forming a Union with representatives to the Federal Government can never become “outdated” as long as the Union exists.

    “When they go to the ballots, people presume they elect the president, not how their state should decide.”
    That’s due to poor education regarding the nature of our representative republic, particularly since “progressives” commandeered our educational system and pounded the false notion of the US being a “democracy” into people’s heads.

    Regardless, what “people presume” has no bearing on the Constitution and is not a valid reason for tampering with the fundamentals of our republican form of government.

    ” this does not apply to elections. After all, only one person can be president at a time.”
    Mob chooses leader of the Mob. Why is that hard to understand?

    Fail.

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