Why the Electoral College?

One of the most popular misconceptions regarding presidential elections is that the people cast ballots for the President of the United States directly; when in reality we elect the President and Vice-president through a method of indirect popular election. 

In less than a month voters will cast their ballots for a group of electors who in turn pledge to vote for a specific candidate when the Electoral College meets later in December.  The presidential/vice-presidential pair who wins the popular vote in any given state (except Nebraska and Maine, where a proportional method of allocating votes is used) receives all of the state’s Electoral College votes.

There are 538 Electoral College votes: 100 represent the two senators from each state, 435 represent the number of congressional districts, and 3 are provided to the District of Columbia.  A majority (270) of the votes in the Electoral College is needed to win the presidency and if no candidate receives a majority, the election is decided by the House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote.

However, since the 2000 election the Electoral College system has come under increasing scrutiny because Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.  In light of that anomaly, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask what could the Founding Fathers have been thinking when they eschewed a direct vote to elect a president? 

Did they not realize that the Electoral College system effectively took the power to select the American president of out of the hands of the American people?  Considering their collective political genius, didn’t they foresee situations when the popular vote winner wouldn’t be the electoral vote winner?  The answers to both

questions are the same, i.e., it was always Founding Fathers’ intent that the states, not the people, select the president.

The Founders understood the dangers of placing ultimate power in the masses.  They feared that placing unlimited power to elect the president into the politically naive hands of the people could lead to a “tyranny of the majority,” which is why they created the Electoral College system as a process to insulate the selection of the president from the whims of the public.  

The Founders soundly rejected the idea of electing a president by popular vote for several excellent reasons.  The most compelling of which is that the electoral system ensures that the winning candidate demonstrates sufficient popular support AND sufficient distribution of that support to be elected president.

Without the Electoral College, presidential candidates could focus on winning the states with the largest populations, i.e. New York, Texas and California, or perhaps just the states within the Eastern Time Zone where roughly 50% of our population lives.  But as a practical matter, in a winner-take-all electoral system, presidential candidates have strong incentives to appeal to voters in individual states in order to win the Electoral College.  And with Colorado’s 9 electoral votes ‘in play’ we’ve already received plenty of attention from both candidates with more to come.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, direct election of the president would actually damage the state’s minority and specific interests, such as environmentalists, teacher’s unions, ranchers, etc. because their votes

would not be courted to the degree that they are now.  Instead, the candidates could simply focus on the national majority.

Americans need look no further than Europe to understand the problems associated with direct popular elections.  Direct elections provide incentives for a multitude of extreme or peripheral interests to form, resulting in a frayed system with numerous political parties.  In some countries it’s not unusual for a winning candidate to be elected with 30%-40% of the popular vote resulting in disunity and radical shifts in national policies from one government to the next.

But perhaps even more importantly, the Founding Fathers felt the electoral vote system would enhance the concept of federalism—the division and sharing of powers between the state and national governments.  Americans are so accustomed to using the word “democracy,” a word that does not appear in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, that we forget our nation is a republic or our form of government is federalism.

The framers of the Constitution worked tirelessly to develop the most effective means of electing a president.  They wanted a system that ensured fair representation to every state in a nation they knew would expand over time; and what they finally decided upon was pure genius.  The notion of voting directly for the President of the United States has an appealing ring to the uninformed; but it is neither in the best interests of the Republic, nor is it what the Founders envisioned for this nation.

Quote of the day:  “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”—Benjamin Franklin

 

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