One certainty every presidential election cycle is that somebody, somewhere will criticize the Electoral College, the system by which American presidents are elected. The primary criticism is that the Electoral College is undemocratic (which is true and kind of the point).
But is the Electoral College antiquated? Is it time to replace it?
We can’t answer these questions without understanding what the Electoral College is and why the Constitution’s framers devised it. The Electoral College was the founding generation’s attempt at leveling the field between large states and small states in the election process. States are assigned delegates based on the number of their representatives in Congress, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. In this way the smaller states are given a disproportionately high number of electoral votes and larger states have a relatively low number of votes.
When the Constitution was being debated, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention debated several methods of electing the president. James Madison, for instance, initially favored Congress choosing the president. In The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution, historian Brion McClanahan notes that two members of the Convention, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, proposed electing the president by a national popular vote. This idea was considered so unwise and dangerous that not only was it defeated at Philadelphia, a national popular vote wasn’t tabulated until 1824.
The Electoral College plan was proposed by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. In Ellsworth’s plan, each state has a number of representatives, called electors, who cast votes for the president. How these representatives were to be chosen was left up to the states and has changed over time.
Today, although voters vote for a candidate, who they are actually electing are these representatives who, in turn, cast votes in the Electoral College for the president. As the Constitution allows, different states have historically used different methods for selecting these electors. It was not uncommon in early presidential elections for the electors to be chosen by the state legislatures, with no popular state vote for president being held.
In modern elections, electors are typically compelled, either legally or by party affiliation, to vote for the nominee of the party that they represent, but originally it was thought that each elector would cast his vote in the Electoral College independent of any influence, even from the voters within his state.
While this seems odd to overdemocratized Americans today, we must remember that the debates at the Constitutional Convention were won by people who, having just escaped British oppression, did not want an all-powerful central government. The Electoral College was designed to ensure that large states couldn’t oppress smaller states and that the federal government could be restrained from infringing on the sovereignty of all the states.
If we want to understand this we need to think of the Union in the same way that our forefathers did, which was as a confederation of sovereign states, not as a single centralized nation. This is why the United States was referred to in the plural up until the Civil War. As McClanahan remarks, “The States are the critical element in the Electoral College. That is how the institution should be viewed, as an agent of the will of the people of the States.”
We should pay special attention to the fact that the framers of the Constitution considered and rejected the idea of electing a president by a popular vote. Why? Says McClanahan, “Several members of the Philadelphia Convention warned against a popularly elected ‘king’ as being dangerous to the liberty of the people. They did not want a demagogue, a despot, or a tyrant, and thought it was better to have an appointed executive than one who would flatter people for votes.”
A despot who flatters people for votes. That sounds familiar.
So, is the Electoral College antiquated? If we view elections through the “progressive” lens of nationalism that dominates political thought today we would have to conclude that it is. The Electoral College, divorced from the founding principle of federalism, makes no sense.
However, this is less of an indictment of the Electoral College than it is an indication of how far we have fallen from the founders’ plan for the nation. Americans long ago rejected the traditional American acknowledgment of the dangers of centralized power and pure democracy. As it stands, the Electoral College is practically the last vestige of an era when the states maintained any measure of authority in the relationship between the federal and state governments.
What we must decide as a society is whether we should remove this last vestige, and with it any checks on federal power, or return to the principles on which it was based.
Update – November, 2016
Four years have passed since I wrote this article, and the fervor over the Electoral College has reached a new pitch with the election of Donald Trump. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton, who lost the Electoral College by a large margin, leads the national popular vote by over a million votes.
The protests by Democrats over the unfairness of the election’s results is overwrought. The Electoral College has been the system that elects American presidents for two and a quarter centuries. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both knew this when they ran their campaigns, and that knowledge impacted their campaign strategies. Had winning the popular vote have determined who would have been president, both candidates would have used different strategies. Therefore, the popular vote count doesn’t matter when both candidates were looking to maximize electoral votes.
It has also been claimed that the Electoral College arose out of a desire to protect slavery, which is the predictable leftist argument against any part of the Constitution that stands in their way. This charge, which has been thoroughly debunked by historian Kevin Gutzman, is baseless, which should be evident by the fact that the Electoral College was proposed by Ellsworth, a Connecticotian who spoke in favor of slavery being abolished during the Philadelphia Convention.
The Electoral College remains an important protection against the mob rule of pure democracy. Unfortunately, Americans continue to misunderstand its importance.