Part 1: What’s So Great About Our Constitution, Anyway?
Essay 16 – The Electoral College
“THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.”
– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 68
There was certainly debate about how to select the President during the Constitutional Convention. However, upon coming to an agreement, as Hamilton suggests in the quote above, there was wide consensus that the system they created was as near perfect as they could hope for.
Hamilton goes on in Federalist 68 to describe it as such:
“I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”
We now know this method of selecting the President as the Electoral College. This essay will provide an explanation of how the Electoral College works and then why it was set up this way and why it is important to retain (and even restore) it.
How does the Electoral College work?
The President is elected every four years by a direct vote of “Electors”.
Electors are chosen in each state by the people and are considered to be among those who are most knowledgeable and qualified of the people to be able to make sound judgments on the fitness of those seeking to be President.
Each state is allotted a certain number of Electors that is equal to the number of Representatives and Senators that the state has in Congress. For example, Wisconsin has 8 Representatives in the House and 2 Senators, so they are awarded 10 Electors. Some small states only get 3 Electors (having only 1 Representative and 2 Senators), while the state of California has a whopping 55 electors!
Since the number of Representatives for a state is determined by population, it follows that the number of Electors for the state is also determined by population. Therefore, while each state gets input as to who is selected as President, it is weighted proportionally for population.
Each state determines their own method to select the Electors. In the beginning, some states chose to have the state legislature choose the Electors, while other states put it up for a vote by the people.
Today, all states have the people voting for the Electors, although most people don’t even know it. More on that in a minute.
After the people elect the Electors, it is then up to the Electors to meet, deliberate and submit a direct vote for the President and Vice President. This is done separately within each state. The states then submit their votes to Congress where the votes are tallied and whoever receives a majority of the votes will become President. If no person receives a majority, then the House will vote from among the top 5 people receiving electoral votes from the Electors. The Senate would then do the same for Vice President.
So, to recap the process:
1. The people vote for Electors within each state, the number of which is determined by the number of representatives and senators in each state
2. The Electors meet separately in each state and vote for the President and Vice President
3. Each state sends their votes to Congress, who then tallies the votes and the winner of the majority of votes becomes the President and Vice President
4. In the case of no majority, the House will determine the President and the Senate will determine the Vice President
Why do we use Electors rather than having the people vote directly for the President?
The method of electing the President is part of the protections in the system to guard against issues we’ve previously discussed, such as the problems with a pure democracy, factions, and tyranny of the majority.
There also needed to be a way to protect the separation of powers and to decrease as much as possible the level of manipulation of the election, especially from foreign entities.
The Electoral College system provides a mix of democratic and republican principles to create a balance that work to meet these goals.
The following points provide more details on this reasoning:
1. The people have a say in the process by directly choosing the Electors.
It was decided that there would be too much risk of demagoguery and exploitation of an uninformed electorate if there was a direct vote for President. Also, it was by design that the different parts of the government would be elected by different means in order to counter the problems with factions and pure democracy.
Recall that the House is directly elected by the people, the Senate was chosen by the state legislatures (originally), the President was elected by separate Electors who are chosen by the people, and the Judiciary is appointed by the President (with consent of the Senate).
This mixture of methods provides a balance and a check on the overall system.
2. The Electors need to be from among the people…they cannot be anyone that is currently holding public office.
This is a protection of the Separation of Powers principle. If Electors can be from the ranks of the House or the Senate, then that opens up the problem of potential Presidents only catering to the desires of those members of the House and the Senate.
3. The Electors are elected specifically and only for the purpose of electing the President.
It is a temporary position that begins and ends with that process. This is important in order to minimize the possibility of corruption and influence from outside forces, including foreign entities. For example, if the Electors were simply members of Congress or some other standing entity, by knowing who they are, it would be easier to target them and manipulate their actions.
4. Each of the states have a proportional say in the election of the President.
If it was a direct, popular vote of the people throughout the country, many smaller states would be ignored and lose their voice in the process. This is an example of the tyranny of the majority problem.
5. Because the President is just one person and is responsible for so much and has a vast amount of power, it is absolutely essential to only allow the most qualified people to attain that position.
It is the role of the President to administer the government. This requires a certain set of qualities that very few people have. A lot of damage can be done if the process of selecting this person essentially becomes a popularity contest.
The Founders understood history and human nature and knew that the average person was not particularly interested in staying fully informed on things enough to make a well-reasoned, sound decision on who is best suited for this administrative position. Most people simply want to live their own lives and don’t really want to be bothered with all of the details of the government’s administration. It’s not that people are too stupid to understand these things or are not capable of making good decisions, it’s just that most people have way too many other things they want to be doing.
Consider the fact that recent polling shows that a whopping 33% of people cannot name a single branch of government and another 27% can name only one branch. Only 26% of the people can name all three branches of government. How and why would we expect people to be informed enough about the qualifications needed to be President if they don’t even know what the 3 branches of government are, let alone what their role is?
Therefore, the system of Electors was devised to alleviate this problem. The Electors would be people among us who are very much informed about all aspects of these issues and can be expected to be able to make more informed decisions.
This is the essence of representative republican government.
Why is it important to keep the Electoral College system?
There has always been a movement to abolish the Electoral College and move to a direct, popular vote of the people for President. This idea continues to gain steam, especially after elections where the person who receives the most popular votes loses because they did not receive the majority of electoral votes.
The desire to change to a popular vote is based on a lack of knowledge on what the Electoral College is and why it is wise.
Here are a few basic details on why to keep the Electoral College system:
1. First and foremost, all of the reasons for establishing this system described above and the wisdom used to do so still apply.
2. If we used a direct, popular vote, potential Presidents would ignore the lesser populated states and the concerns of those people during their campaign and policy development. This would create the problem of tyranny of the majority.
3. Potential election fraud would be increased with a straight popular vote. With the current system, those who would try to cheat the system would need to figure out exactly where to do it in order to have an effect. With a direct popular tally, they could simply target a few highly populated areas to corrupt and it would effect the entire results.
Where we’ve gone wrong…
People simply do not understand the Electoral College system. What’s worse is that many people do not even know it exists, let alone the reasons for it and the protections it provides. Ironically, this fact is indicative of one reason why it was implemented in the first place.
Even though we still use the Electoral College system, it has been altered in many ways so that some of its intended protections have been lost.
Because people were confused when only Electors’ names were on the ballot (and not the actual Presidential candidates), we have now gone to listing the Presidents name on the ballots instead. Technically, people are still voting for the Electors, but most have no idea that’s what they are doing. This has resulted in a diluted system where the Electors now have a very minimized role.
It is now expected that the Electors, instead of using their knowledge and wisdom to select a well-qualified President as intended, will simply be used as a formality to “check” the box of the person the people voted for and send that tally to Congress.
The Electors are now viewed as an administrative part of the process rather than an informed, deliberative process.
We are experiencing the effect of that by seeing less and less qualified people running for the Presidency and the elections and results have become based more on demagoguery, manipulation, and propaganda than ever.
And then the people wonder why we end up with candidates that most people find unacceptable and we end up voting for the “lesser of two evils”.
About this series:
The People Are Sovereign! is a series of 30 essays that will be posted on a daily basis. The series will continue tomorrow with Essay 17 – The Judiciary
To view the previous essay in the series, click this link: Essay 15- The Executive