Every four years like clockwork, people prove they have no understanding of why the electoral college was put in place by the framers of the Constitution by calling for it to be abolished in favor of a direct election. To add fuel to the fire, it looks like the winner of the electoral college and the winner of the popular vote this time around could be two different people. It’s not surprising, everyone learns in grade school that America is a democracy. Problem is, that is only half-true. The U.S.A. is a democratic republic. Somehow, the “republic” part of it always gets forgotten.
Here then is an explanation of why we have an electoral college, probably oversimplified a bit…
The framers of the Constitution realized that in a direct democracy, the states with larger populations would dominate the states with smaller populations. If you look at today’s electoral map, you’ll notice that most of the highly populated states tend to be blue (Democrat) and the less populated states are red (Republican). This has been the typical result for decades now. Our founders knew that the chief concerns of citizens in the rural areas were usually different from those living in urban areas. In order to provide for a more level playing field, they engineered the electoral college system where voters vote for electors who in turn are pledged to vote for the winner of their district. That way, candidates would be forced to win states, not just population center. Under a direct democratic vote, the candidates would only have to campaign in the cities. There would be no incentive to go to the rural areas as well. In today’s world, that means that candidates would never have to consider the wishes and concerns of the farmer in Midwest, the rancher in the Southwest or the shrimper living on the gulf coast. He or she could win having campaigning exclusively in the big cities. New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and a very few other cities would wield tremendous power, even more so than the already do, over the “flyover” states in the interior. The electoral college is a means to slightly level the playing field for the smaller states.
Although they would have called it something different, the electoral college was meant to serve as a firewall between the elected and the electorate. They knew from history that direct democracies could be manipulated to bend to the will of a demagogue, or could be corrupted. Even today, virtually every dictator won their job by a “fair” election. Hitler before he seized total dictatorial power, was elected by the German people. The framers had the foresight to see this sort of thing could happen and sought to insulate the office of the President from the passions of the people. It keeps the election of our president from becoming a power grab.
Much-maligned of late, the electoral college does serve a purpose. Its main function is to equalize the power between the small and large states so that all states matter, not just the more densely populated ones. It provides the farmers in rural Kansas with some parody to their counterparts working on Wall Street. It forces candidates to campaign outside as well as inside the big cities. It recognizes that different regions of the country have different economic and social priorities. Without it, only the priorities of the urban areas would be attended to. It also serves as an insurance policy against demagogues, or a corrupt population selling its vote to the highest bidder. The electoral college often gets a bum rap, mainly from people unaware of its purpose, but has served this country well for over two hundred years. Maybe we should cut it a break.
4 thoughts on “The much-maligned electoral college”
I understand the way you described the reason for the Electoral College, JP, and agree with it otherwise we have mob rule. I think those that want reform are talking about the number of electors that each state has being changed. As it stands now these # don’t represent the population in each state. I just read an article about this showing two states as an example though I couldn’t find it to include here.
I just found a comment on FB that explains it a bit more. I want to learn more about what National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is:
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this. The goals of the Electoral College in giving a voice to different regions of the country are good – the concerns of people in New York City are necessarily different than those of people in Paducah, Kentucky. The two main problems with the Electoral College are how the electors are proportioned to each state (removing the automatic 2 electors/state that reflect the Senate seats would be a big help) and the fact that in almost all states they are winner-take-all. If there were an elector awarded to each state for every, say, 500,000 people, and they were awarded to each candidate proportionally, it would be a huge improvement. But, probably the best that we can hope for is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact – VA is not yet a part of that, so lobby your state legislators!”
There are a few plans out there, and it would take better math skills than I possess to judge them fairly. One of the problems it is hard to accept that disparity in this case is good. The framers settled on a very specific level of disparity. At the time the Constitution was written, there was slavery, hence the infamous 3/5th person idea. When slavery was abolished that would have changed the dynamics. To my knowledge the electoral college system was never changed to adjust. The conservative solution would be to figure out what level of disparity the founders thought fair and restore that ratio based upon there being no “3/5th” persons, only 5/5th persons.
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[…] 2016 was a year jam-packed with political intrigue. There was no shortage of scandal, double-dealing, and betrayal…and that was just the Democrats! (OK it was the Republicans too!) 2016 Saw the rise of the populist in politics, both on the right and the left. On the left, you had an aging senator from Vermont attracting a young and enthusiastic crowd of budding socialists. We witnessed the rise and fall of Ted Cruz, who took Tea Party populism to a new level and became its standard-bearer. Conservative populism clashed with and eventually gave way to well… populist populism. Donald Trump, (now add President-elect to his name) saw a huge chunk of America that had been overlooked by conservatives and taken for granted by liberals, the disaffected white, working class voter. On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats just could not seem to get out of their own way. Day after day, scandal after scandal piled up eventually, at precisely the wrong time, the whole thing collapsed. The liberal world was turned upside down when Trump won the presidency by a convincing margin in the much-maligned Electoral College. […]