The Electoral College Debate
It is a presidential election year so the electoral college will once again spring into action to determine who will be elected PotUS. A perfect time to debate how we should elect our president.
The framers created a system we now call the electoral college (hereafter EC) for electing the PotUS. We must abide by this system unless overridden or modified through a constitutional amendment. Republicans (hereafter ‘R’) want to keep the system intact whereas Democrats (hereafter ‘D’) want to eliminate the EC and replace it with a national popular vote.
Interestingly, both sides can make decent arguments. To help frame discussion, this article will offer an argument for both sides: one for a national popular vote and one for keeping the Electoral College.
National Popular Vote Argument
What could be fairer than ‘ one person one vote ’? When we elect a PotUS we are electing an individual who is to govern for all citizens. It makes sense then that the PotUS have a mandate directly from the people.
Our system of government is a constitutional federated Republic and is thus based on indirect democracy. We use the popular vote heavily to allow citizens to determine who will represent them in the workings of government. The popular vote is used to elect our representatives and almost all our leaders as well as selective direct democracy via referendums and propositions.
Given our democratic core, it is no surprise that the people of each state elect a governor to administer the state per the wishes of the people. Governors are elected by popular vote: ‘ one person, one vote ’. If the popular vote applies to a governor — the chief executive of a state — why would it not apply to the PotUS as the chief executive of the nation?
Senators are elected by popular vote. Since each senator represents the state, the senator is elected by a popular vote across the state. Again, a popular vote from those to whom the Senator is beholding.
Congressional representatives are elected by popular vote. Each congressional district chooses who will represent them. The elected representative is beholding to their constituents — those who voted for the representative.
In short, here is how we elect our key officials:
Method of Election
President (and V.P.)
Does it make sense for the PotUS (and V.P.) to be elected using an odd-ball, ancient system with obsolete mechanisms such as the use of human electors? Why do we not elect our PotUS the same way we elect our governors, senators and congressional representatives? The popular vote is well established in our system, makes sense and could not be fairer to the electorate.
Finally, the popular vote is a remarkably simple system. No need to waste time and resources supporting an ancient system of dubious present value when it can be replaced with a simple, existing tabulation.
- One person, one vote
- Consistent with election method for governors, senators and congressional representatives.
- Simple and immediately available
Electoral College Argument
Our nation is a federated union of distinct states, each of which has different needs and thus a different perspective on what the federal government should do. Profound state differences have existed since before the founding of the union (and are clearly still in effect today). Accordingly, the Federal Constitution (CotUS) was designed to preserve both the will of the people and the significance of statehood when electing representatives to the Legislative and Executive branches of the federal government. The state is a primary (first-order) entity of our federalist system with rights which include a continued voice in federal government.
The significance of states is evident in the method of representation underlying our Legislative and Executive branches.
The Legislative branch consists of the House and the Senate. Each representative in the House works ( at least in theory ) on behalf of constituents in a single district within a single state. Districts are defined by population; more populated states will have more districts and thus a proportionally stronger representation in the House. The House, in this regard, provides popular representation for the people. The senate, in contrast, is designed to represent the states themselves. Each state, regardless of population, has two senators — two votes. By constitutional design, the bicameral Legislative branch (Congress) represents both the will of the people and the significance of statehood.
The intended significance of states by the framers is undeniable.
The Executive branch has only two elected officials: President and vice-President. As with the Legislative branch, both the will of the people and the significance of statehood is preserved by the method of election: the EC.
Simply stated, each state gets one elector for each senator and one elector for each congressional representative (i.e. one per district). The EC is a mirror image of Congress; the exception is that per the 23 rd amendment, the EC grants 3 votes to the capital city: Washington, D.C. Today there are 435 members of the House and thus 538 electors in the EC (435+100+3).
The relevance of state significance is evident when looking at the population centers in the USA today. Based on population, the states California, Texas, New York and Florida dominate the population landscape. The EC encourages politicians to include the needs of smaller states in their platforms rather than focus on the largest cities and the most populated states.
- Preserves federalist intent (states are significant entities)
- Consistent election method for both Legislative and Executive branches
- Encourages politicians to consider needs beyond those of California, Texas, New York and Florida
Both arguments present a fundamental consistency, and both focus on fairness. The popular vote argument seeks fairness for the individual voter but eliminates the voice of the states (as entities). The EC argument seeks a combined fairness that preserves the voice of the individual voter and the voice of the state as a whole, but this approach can violate the national will of the people as a whole.
Seems we should now consider the original intent of the framers. Let’s turn back to the first Congressional Convention and see what our framers were thinking. James Madison was the lead thinker in terms of the architecture of our system. He provided our bicameral Congress and much of his architecture (the Virginia Plan) was ratified (albeit compromised). His thoughts give great insight into original intent.
Although he did not propose it, Madison preferred the idea of electing the PotUS by national popular vote. It was considered in the convention but never gained traction largely due to the unequal suffrage of the states. Those states with high suffrage would dominate the others. From the minutes reflecting Madison’s words:
July 19, 1787 The people at large was in his opinion the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character. The people generally could only know & vote for some Citizen whose merits had rendered him an object of general attention & esteem. There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.
Madison notes the importance of supporting the significance of smaller states and the impact of having a large population of slaves who were not counted in the census.
Another key concern in the debate was the ignorance of the people and the idea that they could be easily persuaded by charismatic figures and might not pick a candidate of the finest character. ( Hard, today, to miss the sad irony of that sentence .)
Ultimately, after much debate, the convention determined a solution which factored in the popular vote of the people, did not make the PotUS beholding to the Executive branch but to the people, and introduced a buffer to ensure the people did not make a bad decision due to ignorance. The solution was to assemble ostensibly informed men called electors, elected (directly or indirectly) by the people, who would heavily consider the popular votes of their constituents when casting their votes for PotUS. Further, the electors necessarily disband after the election to ensure the Executive branch could not be beholding to them.
The choice of the specific electors was left up to the states. Initially, most of the states had their state legislators choose the electors. This is an indirect representation of the popular vote. The others directly chose their electors via popular vote of the congressional districts (and by state popular vote) as we do today.
Another factor was to determine the number of electors per state. The method for determining the number of electors was a topic of heavy debate and in the end the framers followed the model of the Legislative system. Every state has two electors (matching the two senators) right off the bat. In addition, each state has an elector for each congressional district (matching the representatives).
Note that this automatically incorporates well-considered design features of the Legislative architecture. Because states had unequal populations of free men (only ones counted in the census), larger states would dominate the smaller ones. This was resolved by the bicameral Congress in which the House represents states by population (giving the larger states a weighted representation) but the Senate has 2 senators for each state. Each state thus had an equal voice to preserve the significance of statehood. ( Remember in our federal system, states are inherently viewed as first-order entities .)
Another design feature dealt with the large population of slaves in Southern states. Slaves were not counted and thus weakened House representation for states with a heavy slave population. Ultimately this caused the 3/5 compromise to be factored in. It was deemed necessary because the framers knew they could not achieve ratification unless states with heavy slave populations were accommodated. Counting each slave as 3/5 a person turned out, interestingly, to be acceptable.
So, with all factors addressed, the framers produced a consistent system for representing the wishes of the states and of their electorates in the election of the Legislative branch and then applied the same basic structure to the election of the Executive branch (the PotUS and V.P.).
How the EC was Sold to the Public
So now let’s see how Hamilton communicated this to the public via Federalist :
The Mode of Electing the President
From the New York Packet Friday, March 14, 1788.
Author: Alexander Hamilton
To the People of the State of New York: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. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. 1 I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.
Hamilton is expressing what we can assume is the consensus view of the convention that the electoral college addresses the various competing constraints extremely well. He now explains these competing constraints.
It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.
Hamilton notes that those who ultimately elect the PotUS are not an established body that can exert their influence (to get a return of favors) on the sitting PotUS.
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
Hamilton delicately tells the people that they cannot all be trusted to make a good decision so they will instead elect smart people to decide on their behalf.
It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.
Basically he notes that this disables tyranny of the majority and overly emotional voting.
And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
Hamilton notes that the electors themselves could be tainted and thus are kept sequestered within their own states. He now goes on to detail these considerations.
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment.
And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means. Nor would it be found easy suddenly to embark them, dispersed as they would be over thirteen States, in any combinations founded upon motives, which though they could not properly be denominated corrupt, might yet be of a nature to mislead them from their duty.Another and no less important desideratum was, that the Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice.
Now he summarizes to close the sale:
All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes, thus given, are to be transmitted to the seat of the national government, and the person who may happen to have a majority of the whole number of votes will be the President. But as a majority of the votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office. The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.
Gotta love the optimism.
Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration. Though we cannot acquiesce in the political heresy of the poet who says: "For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best," yet we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.
The Vice-President is to be chosen in the same manner with the President; with this difference, that the Senate is to do, in respect to the former, what is to be done by the House of Representatives, in respect to the latter.
The appointment of an extraordinary person, as Vice-President, has been objected to as superfluous, if not mischievous. It has been alleged, that it would have been preferable to have authorized the Senate to elect out of their own body an officer answering that description. But two considerations seem to justify the ideas of the convention in this respect. One is, that to secure at all times the possibility of a definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the President should have only a casting vote. And to take the senator of any State from his seat as senator, to place him in that of President of the Senate, would be to exchange, in regard to the State from which he came, a constant for a contingent vote. The other consideration is, that as the Vice-President may occasionally become a substitute for the President, in the supreme executive magistracy, all the reasons which recommend the mode of election prescribed for the one, apply with great if not with equal force to the manner of appointing the other. It is remarkable that in this, as in most other instances, the objection which is made would lie against the constitution of this State. We have a Lieutenant-Governor, chosen by the people at large, who presides in the Senate, and is the constitutional substitute for the Governor, in casualties similar to those which would authorize the Vice-President to exercise the authorities and discharge the duties of the President.PUBLIUS.
Which System Should We Use?
We have an argument for popular vote and one for retaining the EC. We have a decent idea of the framer’s intent and we can identify conditions that no longer apply in 2020.
The conditions in play in ~1788 are quite different than now. There are no slaves. We have technology to provide for extremely effective communication and almost everyone in the nation is literate and has online access to an over-abundance of information. There is no excuse for ignorance but even some of our most ignorant are better informed and better educated that most of the citizens in the 18 th century. Further, even in a nation of 328+ million people and an EC, the people still somehow are capable of electing a PotUS who would be viewed as unfit by the likes of Hamilton:
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.
On the other hand, ours remains a federal system and the significance of states is still an important factor. Our states are still quite different, and less populated states would be far less significant to the Executive branch if the PotUS only needed a popular win.
Red Box Rules
- Any constitutional amendment of significance is unlikely to be ratified, so comments on the viability of ratification are off topic. Instead, debate the ideas in concept.
- No trolling. Do not come here and make things personal or simply complain.
- Engage in thoughtful, adult discourse on the pros and cons of these approaches or be silent and let others attempt to do so.