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 These individuals couch their position in language that portrays the staid institution as primitive or outdated.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.