In defense of the Electoral College

I actually first published this to my old blog back in 2007, which explains the references to Hillary Clinton as “New York’s junior senator.” The question still arises today. Defending the Electoral College is an issue that ought to cut across party lines. This is not about politics, but polity. This is important. Please take time to consider the argument in favor of the Electoral College’s existence.

 

The President of the United States of America. Every four years one person is chosen to occupy the highest office in the land. The choice is made by the nation’s citizens. On the second Tuesday of November, Americans in every state go to the ballot box and mark their preferences. After turning in their ballot cards, they grin proudly and place a sticker that says “I voted” on their shirts. Lying in bed that night, these Americans can feel satisfaction knowing that their voice will be heard. After all, it will be the vote of the American people that determines who will be the next President—sort of.

The Electoral College was born in the minds of the founding fathers as they penned the Constitution of the United States. Though it has been around since the United States became united, its mechanics remain a mystery to a large portion of nation’s population. The process is not as intricate and complex as many suspect. To become the President, a candidate must receive a majority of the states’ Electoral College votes. Today that number is two hundred seventy.

The number of votes for each state is equal to the number of seats that state has in Congress, which includes both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Just as the creation of the two tier legislative branch was a compromise between large and small states, the Electoral College is also a device which helps balance the power between heavily and sparsely populated states. In the Senate all states are equally represented with two senators. In the House, the number of representative each state has is based upon population.  Thus, the number of votes a state has in the Electoral College is the combination of the equality of all states and the various numbers of individual voices in each separate state (see the United States’ Constitution).

The Electoral College votes take the form of delegates, real human beings chosen to go to Washington D.C., appear before Congress, and declare themselves for a particular candidate. The Constitution sets the date for this meeting of Electors and Congress more than a month after election Tuesday. The Constitution gives the power to choose a state’s slate of Electors to the state legislative branch. “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors. . .” (US Constitution, Article II, Section I, Clause 2). Though it does have unlimited, binding control of the process, usually the popular vote within the state will determine the slate of Electors endorsed by the legislature. All but two states—Maine and Nebraska—have adopted the “unit rule” regarding their Electoral College votes.  The unit rule locks all of a state’s votes together so they cannot be divided among candidates. Thus, if a candidate wins the nation’s largest electoral prize, California, he gets all its fifty-four votes—regardless of the margin of victory (Forbes, 26).

The Electoral College system has been called “archaic,” “elitist,” and “unnecessary” since modern voting machinery made results practically instant and accurate. With nearly every Presidential election, there comes talk about the Electoral College and whether it continues to have a place in our government. Many wonder why the United States should not just do away with the electoral system and elect the President based solely upon popular vote. This discussion has even taken place formally in Congress. In 1960, Kennedy narrowly beat Nixon in the popular vote, 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Nixon won more states (Nixon 26, Kennedy 24), but Kennedy won bigger states and went on to win the electoral balloting, 303 to 219. The suggestions about dumping the Electoral College began. In 1968, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey with a popular vote margin of less than one percent. The possibility of a modern-day popular vote winner being denied the presidency became such a concern that the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. The bill had broad support in the Senate as well. Though debate stretched on for a decade, it never got the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment (Hively, 79).

The debate got heated again after the 2000 election of George W. Bush over Al Gore. And it has been sparked again. People are questioning both the necessity and the fairness of the Electoral College. Many, including New York’s junior Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have spoken out against the electoral system designed by the founding fathers. The odds of such an amendment ever getting the necessary two-thirds majority is extremely slim because of senators from less populous states who would surely oppose the move. If, by chance, an amendment was approved, the Electoral College cast away, and the President was to be elected by direct popular vote, a real tragedy would have occurred. The Electoral College is important to ensure the power of individual votes, the best possible representation of the whole nation, and the protection of minorities (racial, religious, ideological, etc.).

The trademark of our democracy is the governing power of the people’s voice. Votes, the voice of the people, have far more weight and importance in the Electoral College system than they would in a direct election by popular vote. The power of a vote is the probability of that one vote turning a national election. The higher the probability, the more power each voter has. Individual voting power is higher when funneled through districts—such as states—than when pooled in one large, direct election (Hively, 81). It is more likely, therefore, that one person’s vote will determine the outcome in his or her state and that state turning the outcome of the Electoral College than that person’s vote determining the outcome of a direct national election.

Some would argue that this makes some votes more important than others. These people might point out how in 2000 a five hundred vote lead in Florida mattered more than a three hundred thousand vote lead nationwide. The votes in Florida mattered more than those anywhere else. They do not appear equal. Mere equality of votes, however, is not of the highest importance. Rather, the idea is to give every voter the largest equal share of national voting power possible. This is an important distinction. Here is a classic example of basic equal voting power:  under a tyranny, everyone’s power is equal to zero (Hively, 77). Clearly, equality alone is not enough. In a democracy, individuals become less vulnerable to tyranny as their voting power increases. That power is enhanced by the Electoral College’s ability to make a vote more likely to determine an election’s outcome.

The chief architect of our nation’s Electoral College system was James Madison. Realizing the dangerous possibility of a dominating bloc of citizens banded together as a massed power, Madison wanted to protect each citizen of the democracy against such tyranny. As Madison explained in The Federalist Papers (Number X), “a well-constructed Union” must, above all else, “break and control the violence of faction,” especially “the superior force of an. . .overbearing majority.” In any direct democracy, minorities are threatened by the majorities’ power. Without an electoral system, a candidate has every incentive to court only the votes of the largest bloc—the Serbs in Yugoslavia, for example. If a Serbian party were to win a national election, minorities would have no means of ever having their rights and needs represented; forty-nine percent will never beat fifty-one percent. Knowing this, the majority can do as it pleases without any fear of ever losing control. But, with an electoral system which funnels votes through districts, no one can become president without winning a large number of districts or “states”—say, two of the following three: Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Candidates, therefore, have need to woo non-Serbian voters as well as Serbians. This protects the minorities from extremists.

The nation’s Electoral College has worked beautifully to convert one large national election into fifty-one (the fifty states plus the District of Columbia) smaller elections in which individual voters have more clout. The Madisonian system, by requiring candidates to win states on the way to winning the nation, has forced majorities to win the consent of minorities. In the 2000 election, citizens who lived in big cities were a slight majority compared to citizens in rural areas. Though Gore was ahead of Bush by 300,000 votes nationwide, Bush won 2,432,456 square miles of land and Gore only won 575,184 square miles. The vast majority of the land in which Gore triumphed is highly urban areas (Overberg). Without the Electoral College, voters in rural areas would have no real influence on Presidential elections. However, under the current system, candidates need to represent ideas that appeal to the whole nation to win.  They must have an ideology that does not represent only that of the numerical, geographically-restrictive majority. Candidates must represent the diversity of the nation.

Advocates for direct election of the President complain that a candidate who wins the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote will have no real mandate to govern, and that he will not be the legitimate choice of the people. Such people simply do not like the rules as they are laid out. These activists should consider the “legitimacy argument” in terms of baseball. In the World Series, a team must win four games in the seven game series. The 1960 World Series was a major battle between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over the course of all the games, the Yankees scored more than twice as many total runs as the Pirates, 55 to 27. Yet the Yankees lost the series, four games to three. No one walked away saying it was unfair. Those are the rules. That’s how the game is played. Similarly, the rules in the Constitution of the United States, the document which embodies the freedoms of Americans, states that the President is selected by the outcome of the Electoral College vote. Just as the Pirates, who scored less runs but won more games, were the legitimate winner of the World Series in 1960, a candidate who gets less individual votes but wins more states’ electoral votes would be the legitimate winner of the presidential election.

Though misunderstood by many Americans, the Electoral College is a tool designed by the founding fathers to ensure the peaceful unity of the democracy. Unlike a direct popular election, the Electoral College maximizes the power of each individual’s vote. This electoral system also prevents even the slightest majority from taking hold of control and mistreating the valid minority. If a candidate wants to win, he must court the votes of many states; this leads to the election of the candidate who best represents the diversity across the nation. The Electoral College works to see that every President is truly the leader of a united United States.

 

Works Cited

Forbes, Steve.  “Underrated Unifier.”  Forbes.  16 Dec. 1996: 26.
Hively, Will.  “Math Against Tyranny.”  Discovery Nov. 1996: 74-84.
Madison, James.  The Federalist Papers.  1798.
Overberg, Paul.  “Latest Vote, County by County.” USA Today.  20 Nov. 2000      <http://www.usatoday.com/news/vote2000/cbc/map.htm>United States Constitution

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