Part 1: An Overview of the Electoral College
Part 2: The Case Against the Electoral College
After reading Part 2, you’d be forgiven for wanting to abolish the undemocratic Electoral College. You might even be wondering what America’s founding fathers were thinking when they created it. I’ll get into their thought process and some of the more admirable qualities of the Electoral College in a moment, but first I want to ask some anti-Electoral-College liberals a question that might make their heads explode.
What’s more important: majority rule or minority protections?
Think on that as we take a trip back to 1780s, when a fledgling country tried to find its way.
Part 3: In Defense of the Electoral College
Our founding fathers had a few primary motivations when constructing the Electoral College. They designed the College as part of the broader Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, a meeting in the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787.
At the time, the 13 American states still operated under its first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, which gave every state equal power — precisely one vote each — in the purposefully weak, single-branch national government. Written during the Revolutionary War, the Articles reflected Americans’ reluctance to give up too much authority to a distant capital, whether it sat in London or Philadelphia, so most decisions were left to states to handle their own business. Though the Articles ultimately lacked enough uniformity to allow a viable nation to prosper, many revolutionaries defended its anti-authoritarian premise even as it proved unworkable. When American leaders looked to either amend or replace the system, continued union required that states would not totally give up their sovereignty to a central capital.
Meanwhile, small states fiercely protected state equality, worrying that population-based representation at the national level would allow larger states to push around the tiny ones. Had the Constitution allowed representation based solely on population, one large state, such as Virginia, could outvote several of the smaller states combined.
Therefore, to secure smaller states’ support for the new Constitution, they were given power disproportionate to their population in a couple key ways. One was in the Senate, where every state sent the same number of Senators to the federal government. Since nothing that passed in the House could become law without the Senate (much to the chagrin of the modern House), the smaller states stayed protected. The other protection for smaller states was this disproportionate power when picking the chief executive through the Electoral College (a disproportionality discussed in Part 2).
The combination of state sovereignty and the political survival of smaller states gave us federalism, a system that has treated us pretty well over the last 230 years. Each state is its own unique polity; like the national government, each state has its own constitution, bicameral congress (except for the weirdos in Nebraska), chief executive (a governor), and court system. State can make their own laws, assuming they don’t contradict the U.S. Constitution. Thus, each state, as titan Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, is a “laboratory of democracy,” fiddling with political, legal, and social ideas, many of which make the grade and jump to the national level if they work for the country and stay contained if they don’t.
Ultimately, local decision-making was at the crux of the American Revolution and the Constitution that followed it. It’s the foundation of American government, around since our country’s inception.
In addition to protecting federalism, another motivation behind the Electoral College was the installation of a barrier between the people and the chief executive. Whether they worried that people were too uneducated or given to reactionary, emotional mood swings, a purely democratic system risked turning into a “tyranny of the majority,” sometimes called a “mobocracy.” They clearly feared giving the voting public too much of a say.
Our Constitution consistently reflects this fear. Believe it or not, the people could not directly elect any part of the federal government except the first branch’s lower chamber: the House of Representatives. Before the Seventeenth Amendment, the upper chamber — the Senate — was appointed by state legislatures. The second branch, the chief executive, was picked by the Electoral College, which itself was also chosen by state leaders. Finally, federal judges, then and now, were appointed by this executive — who wasn’t chosen directly by the people — on advice and consent of the Senate — which, again, wasn’t elected by the people either. In sum, the people only directly voted for one half of one branch, or one-sixth of the government.
Meanwhile, that one-sixth — the House — couldn’t even do anything without agreement of the Senate, and then the chief executive usually had to sign off on it, so the Constitution hamstrung the people’s chamber. Thus, our founding fathers set up a government that not only had internal checks and balances, but a check on the people’s authority as well. They didn’t trust you.
That distrust erected a wall between the voters and their election of the president. When Alexander Hamilton defended the system in Federalist No. 68, he argued that instead of allowing the volatile American people to make an unchecked bad decision, the college could be a last line of defense. Electors would be “most likely to have the information and discernment” to make a good choice. Instead of allowing a gullible electorate to be taken advantage of by a passionate demagogue, Hamilton believed that “the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.” In our time as in theirs, it is decidedly impossible for millions of voters to have quality deliberation across class, race, and region (thank a lot, Fox and CNN), so our founders reasoned a smaller, more educated and reasonable body should do it for us.
Of course, in practice, this justification has some holes:
- Electors have never acted too independently of their state’s voters. Even in the five presidential elections where the popular vote winner lost in the Electoral College, it was always just a quirk of the system, never a case of enough electors faithlessly overruling their states’ wishes to the point where it swung an election.
- It’s also worth noting that states’ electors don’t actually meet to “deliberate.” Each state’s electors vote on their own.
- In the modern era, I can’t imagine the kind of uproar that would result from such an Electoral College veto over a state’s wishes. If it didn’t happen in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency (isn’t that still crazy to think about sometimes?), I don’t think it ever will.
“If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent,” Hamilton wrote. Indeed, it’s not a perfect system, but that doesn’t take away from its wisdom. The Electoral College, like the rest of the Constitution, is most admirable when it not only protects us from government, but when it protects us from ourselves as well.
That brings us back to my opening question. I’ve given you time (and about a thousand words) to think, so what is your answer? Which side are you on: majority rule or minority protections? How you answer that question might inform your stance on the Electoral College.
Before you lock in your response, perhaps your stance could be clarified if you remembered the story of Socrates‘s trial. Charged with rubbishness — disrespect toward the gods and corruption of the Athenian youth — a vote from citizens determined his guilt anyway. After finding him guilty, the same group voted on his punishment, and they chose execution. One swig of hemlock later, the greatest Western philosopher of his time was dead. Thus, as the saying goes, “Democracy killed Socrates.”
The lesson, of course, teaches us that just because a majority of people want something does not mean they should necessarily be given it. Majority rule is not inherently good. In fact, in Socrates’s case, it was quite dangerous. It’s the mob. Instead of pure democracy, a government would be wise to have stability through limited government and bulwarked institutions that can survive the capricious whims of the governed. The people should certainly have a say, but they should not be unchecked. That’s our republic, and some could argue that’s the very point of government: it provides protection from ourselves.
The Constitution overflows with protections against the majority and aggressive changes to our foundational laws.
- If a populist uprising peaks at a Congressional election, it can only take over the House and, thanks to staggered terms, one-third of the Senate.
- In the meantime, separation of powers and checks and balances help slow the gears of government — a frustrating but ultimately protective process.
- It’s exceedingly hard to amend the Constitution without broad support across the country and the states, so changes can’t happen merely because a small majority of people with a transient desire gain some political power.
- The first ten amendments further protected citizens.
All these mechanisms would be incredibly hard for a majority of Americans to overcome. And that’s a good thing.
The Electoral College recognizes that. It does not give into the mob. Instead, it considers the diversity of an electorate, aiming to represent a mixture of minority interests across the country, not just the interests of the majority. Like it or not, President Trump won the industrial North (Rust Belt), Deep South, and Midwest while getting pretty close in two northeast states (New Hampshire and Maine). Hillary Clinton won racial minorities in urban areas, but not constituent minorities across a variety of regions. In contrast, 2008 Obama won Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Iowa — four very different states. Clinton lost them all.
To win the majority of electors, a candidate must gain the confidence of the greatest number of interests in the country. The ability to speak to a diversity of interests is an important quality in the head of state.
And we mustn’t forget the federalism factor. The states agreed to the Constitution under a certain premise, a premise necessary for them to abandon the Articles of Confederation: states had to have a say, and the smaller states could not be easily overwhelmed. Are we now going to renege on that agreement because we don’t like the President?
Keep in mind that if you think smaller states having disproportionate power is unfair, you’re not only arguing for tossing the Electoral College, but the United States Senate as well. Why should Wyoming and California have the same power in the chamber, right? And since we’re ignoring individual states’ voices in the federal government, why not scrap state sovereignty altogether? Let’s convert to provinces under full control of Washington. No more local control. No more laboratories of democracy. Just a national unicameral Congress that serves alongside a popularly elected president. The 51 percent reign supreme.
As a holder of many minority opinions, that would break PPFA’s heart and terrify its soul.
Verdict: Sorry, Dems, but I say keep the College. I am, however, very much open to switching away from winner-take-all Electoral College states. Proportional results in the states — for example, a close vote in a state would mean a close electoral split in its delegation — would maintain smaller states’ relevance while also reflecting the will of political minorities in all states, decreasing the importance of swing states. More Americans would be motivated to vote. Voting shenanigans could still be contained. Remember, the Constitution does not say electoral delegations must be winner-take-all. We can do this!
But we probably won’t. I hear it’s pretty hard to make big changes.
As evidence, consider the first House of Representatives. In the House, the size of a state’s delegation ties directly to its population. Virginia, the largest state in the eighteenth century, sent 10 delegates to the first House. The least populated states, Rhode Island and Delaware, each got one. The next smallest, New Hampshire and Georgia, each received three. Thus, a united Virginia delegation could outvote the four smallest states combined, 10 to 8.
Shortly after the Constitution’s ratification, the Bill of Rights added a third protection of states’ rights: the Tenth Amendment.
And, considering you made the dubious decision to spend a part of your day reading this website, can you blame them?
Another crucial piece of historical context: in the founders’ era, it was rare to be a nationally known figure. News moved slowly, and all politics was local. While Americans might know their own state’s or region’s leaders, few national figures aside from George Washington (the man assumed to be the first president) were household names. What the framers instead expected was for citizens to vote for their own state’s or region’s leaders, meaning the winner would carry an almost non-existent national mandate. That’s partially why the Constitution tasked the House of Representatives with determining the winner if no candidate reached a majority, a “tiebreaker” that Virginian George Mason predicted would be necessary “nineteen times out of twenty.” Thus, a learned group of electors could hash out the contenders that made sense and only vote among them.
That’s something that made this past election so weird. Hamilton thought the College could ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Democrats and Republican Never-Trumpers figured if ever there was a time for the will of the people to be overruled by a more reasonable body, it was when the most uneducated, inexperienced, unprepared, and clownish mainstream candidate in the country’s history won the election. Federalist No. 68 even acknowledged a fear of someone with “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.” And yet, the weird part is that overturning the results of election night still wouldn’t have quite been overruling the will of the people, as more Americans had voted for his opponent. So if the 2016 election doesn’t get overturned by the Electoral College, will any? And if not, is that one less reason to keep it around? (I’m starting to think this belonged in Part 2.)
And let’s not forget, even if it were a national popular vote that determined the winner, Hillary Clinton’s penchant for losing national elections that she’s supposed to win is almost unparalleled. Under different rules, that campaign would have been waged very differently, and Trump could well have won it anyway.
I’d like to think speaking in coherent sentences and paragraphs is another attractive quality in a head of state, but the electorate disagreed.
5 thoughts on “PPFA Evaluates the Electoral College (Part 3)”
[…] justified their rebellion against the British Empire and laid the framework for the first modern representative democracy. The Americans were successful, and they have since granted Voltaire a megaphone, helping to […]
[…] note: Originally a three–part series, “PPFA Evaluates the Electoral College” is now combined and streamlined below into one […]
Why did you not consider just expanding the House (and thus the Electoral College) by simply passing a law? A good start would be to have at least 3 members of the House for even the smallest states (by population), because, it would seem unpoetic that a state should have more Senators than House members. That would triple the size of the House, make representation in the Electoral College far more proportional (as the ratio of House to Senate would jump), and have the added benefit of making gerrymandering just a bit harder because a jigsaw with smaller pieces is harder to gerrymander than one with larger pieces.
And it only takes Congress passing a law to overcome the freeze on House membership imposed some 100 years ago.
It’s a reasonable idea! I don’t think I prefer it, however. I picture a growing Congress of thousands of people, which seems overly cumbersome and potentially a worse system than we have already.
Thanks very much for your comment!
[…] I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but I am saying it fits in line with the trajectory of America’s Constitutional history. Food for thought. […]