Harvard professor and former presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig, about whom PPFA wrote a piece two years ago, has an idea. The Electoral College, he says, is outdated, undemocratic, and it needs changes. And he’s preparing a lawsuit to make it happen.
Is he right? Is this a noble quest? Should the Electoral College be replaced, or at least amended?
A year after the Electoral College elected Donald Trump to be president, many of you are screaming “YES!” But let’s not be hasty. Let’s instead be educated.
To best understand the cases for and again the Electoral College, let’s take a classic PPFA deep dive into that murky pool where history’s chlorine tries to clarify our messy politics.
Part 1: An Electoral College Overview
Remember that time a presidential candidate earned more votes but lost anyway?
“Which time?“ you might ask.
You know — that recent time.
“Which recent time?” you might ask again. Shrewd as ever, you know that two of our last three presidents (Bush in 2000, Trump in 2016) were elected with fewer votes than their opponents. Is that a problem? Is our system broken?
There is no better way to tackle this issue than with some Frequently Asked Questions that precisely zero of you actually asked.
What even is this wonky “Electoral College” of which you speak?
Created by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution (and later modified in the Twelfth Amendment), the Electoral College is currently a group of 538 Electors who vote for the president. (That number started at just 69 in the first presidential election but has grown with new states and a rising population.) Each state picks its own delegation, the size of which is equivalent to each state’s number of House members plus its Senators. Since the numbers of House members are determined by population, each state’s Electoral College delegation roughly correlates to the population of the state. Every state has two Senators and at least one House member, so every state (and DC) has at least three electoral votes.
Members of the Electoral College cast their presidential ballots in December, a month after the general population’s Election Day.
How did those members get admitted to this so-called “college”? GPA? SAT scores? Guidance counselor recommendations?
Those were truly awful guesses.
Every presidential election brings with it an almost entirely new group of electors. Depending on which candidate wins each state, that candidate’s party gets to pick the state’s allotted electors. Thus, if the Democrat earns a few more votes than the Republican in, say, Virginia, then Virginia’s Democratic Party gets to pick loyal Democrats to fill out its entire 13-member delegation to the Electoral College. These Democrats will almost certainly vote for the Democratic candidate. Of the Electoral College’s 51 delegations, two operate differently: Nebraska and Maine allow each of their Congressional districts to pick an elector in their state’s delegation. The 48 states that set up winner-take-all systems did so in order to amplify their state’s importance in an election, hoping to get more attention from the candidates. Of course, all but two states amplifying muffles the amplification.
Some of these electors have been known to go rogue — they’re called faithless electors — and vote for someone other than the candidate preferred by the state’s voters. In fact, 2016 had seven faithless electors, the highest number in election history that included two candidates who were still alive. (In 1872, losing candidate Horace Greeley died between Election Day and Electoral College Election Day, probably the most prominent historical example of adding injury to insult.) Receiving votes were John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, Colin Powell, and Faith Spotted Eagle.
Wait, so it’s these electors and NOT the voting public who elects the President?
Correct. The people are actually voting for these electors, and it’s the electors who then elect the president.
That sounds crazy. What’s the history behind the Electoral College?
For about a millennium the Catholic Church has elected its popes through the College of Cardinals, essentially an electoral college. Barely more secularly, the Holy Roman Empire, for much of its history, had a group of electors (originally seven, but the body grew over time) who elected each Holy Roman Emperor. They were known as reichsstände, a title which, if said out loud, begs to be replied with gesundheit.
WTF? The Holy Roman Empire? I’m asking about America, you unbelievable nerd.
Oh, right. America. The Electoral College likely birthed from the mind of
Lin-Manuel Miranda Alexander Hamilton. Though the details of the Constitutional Convention are purposefully muddled (its members had to swear an oath of secrecy, though inevitable leaks escaped), we can still assume Hamilton championed the system behind its closed doors for two primary reasons:
- When Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay combined forces for The Federalist papers (which aimed to rally public support for the Constitution ahead of a ratification vote in New York), it was Hamilton who explained the purposes and merits of the Electoral College, an essay which became “Federalist No. 68.”
- Hamilton, like many founding fathers but even more so, feared the “tyranny of the majority” — a term which implies democracy can’t be trusted to make good decisions. The people, in other words, don’t know best, and can get carried away, They might even, I don’t know, get swept up in the rise of an unqualified demagogue who is a lot better at running for office than he is at holding it.
We’ll return to the arguments of Hamilton and others in favor of the Electoral College a bit later. In the meantime, suffice it to say we’ve used the Electoral College in all 58 of our presidential elections. Some love it. Other say…
So which is it? A good system or a “disaster”?
And now we arrive at the heart of the matter. Part 2 next. See you then.