The Electoral College is not an official term. It is not mentioned in the Constitution. It was coined in the early 1800s to describe the group of “electors” that actually elects the president and vice president. However, the role of electors is an integral part of the original Constitution, and the specifics of the electoral process are laid out in the 12th Amendment, which was ratified in 1804. Therefore, it can only be modified or eliminated by a constitutional amendment.
Recently, the EC has come under substantial criticism. Some of the criticisms may have a degree of merit, but I believe that most of those who have been criticizing the EC are doing so due to self-interest and have demonstrated a lack of understanding of how it functions and, also, the historical reasons for it. How does it function? Why was it conceived? Is it still necessary today? What are its advantages and disadvantages? Should it be modified or abolished? Read on, and I will attempt to explain.
I think some historical perspective is in order. According to Nancy Benac, reporting for the AP, the EC was conceived at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a compromise between those who favored a straight popular vote for president and those who wanted no public participation. Most of you may recall that it had been agreed that in order for the republic to succeed it would be necessary that ALL states ratify the constitution. No state(s) would be bullied by a majority.
In order to accomplish that, there were many difficult issues to overcome. For example, smaller states feared domination by the larger states, and how would slaves be counted, as “people” or as “property?” These and other thorny matters were finally resolved by a series of compromises, including the “three-fifths compromise,” the makeup of the House and Senate and the EC. So, in my opinion, those who are now claiming the EC is based solely on slavery are being simplistic and disingenuous. More on this later.
Simply put, the EC is a term for the various groups of “electors” that have been chosen by each state’s voters. Even though we think we are voting for the candidate on the ballot, we are, in reality, not voting for that candidate, directly, but, rather, for an elector who has pledged support for that candidate. This is a small, but significant distinction. In most cases, it is a distinction without a difference, as electors invariably end up voting for the candidate to whom they have pledged their support, but they are not required to do so. Indeed, throughout history, there have been a few cases where a “rogue” elector has not done so.
The number of electors allocated to a particular state is equal to the total of its senators and representatives. Each state legislature chooses its own electors by its own procedures. Presently, there are a total of 538 electors.
The least populous states, such Wyoming, have three, while California, the most populous, presently has 55. DC is allocated the same number as the smallest state (3).
Briefly, the election process is as follows:
1. On the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November in a presidential election year voters vote for electors that are pledged to their candidate of choice.
2. In December these electors meet in their respective state capitols to officially cast their votes. The electors sign a Certificate of Vote, which is then sealed and delivered to the President of the Senate. As I mentioned, these electors are generally required to follow the wishes of the voters, but, historically, there have been a few instances in which they have not.
3. The result is ratified in January before a joint session of Congress.
4. If no candidate receives a majority the House votes with each state having one vote.
Criticisms/Suggestions for modification:
1. The current system unfairly gives the smaller states a disproportionately larger voting power compared to the larger states.
2. Increase the size of the House of Representatives. This would give more electors to the larger states, and, thus, come closer to the “one man, one vote standard” espoused by some.
3. Replace the winner take all method of allocating electors with a proportional method, which is presently only employed in Maine and Nebraska.
4. Eliminate the EC entirely, and elect the president by straight popular vote.
As I said, opponents of the EC cite the risk that the vote of the electors will contradict the will of the people as evidenced by the popular vote. They cite the 2016 election of Donald Trump as exhibit A. Moreover, they remind us that slavery no longer exists as a reason for the EC. I say, true, but not the whole story. Read on.
Reasons to retain it:
1. The USA is governed by a federal system, one in which individual states share power with the national government. A straight national vote for president would result in a concentration of power in the national government at the expense of the individual states. Clearly, this was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. As I said, when the Republic was first formed many states, especially, the smaller, least populated ones, were concerned about being dominated by the larger, more populous states. That concern is reflected in many areas, such as the composition of the Senate and the EC.
2. The Founding Fathers viewed it as a layer of protection against the possibility of a populist or a demagogue winning the popular vote by captivating the electorate. Many of them reasoned that only a select “enlightened” few persons would have the capability of analyzing the issues and selecting a president. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were particularly strong proponents of electors. Madison envisioned electors being elected by voters in their respective districts and then being entrusted with the important task of selecting a president. Hamilton concurred, opining that the selection of the president should be “made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of president].” That type of elitist attitude, which is certainly not in vogue today, was prevalent in the 18th century when most of the populace could neither read nor write. Despite the outdated logic, I believe the system has served us well. I respect the historical precedent. Furthermore, I subscribe to the belief that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
3. Without it, candidates would ignore the least populous states and focus on campaigning in states like CA, NY, FL, IL and TX where the most votes are. These states would dominate the country’s politics.
4. It preserves the two-party system. Although the two-party system has its drawbacks, it is better than the system typical of European democracies where there are numerous splinter parties, which makes governing cumbersome.
5. Despite the furor over the 2016 election there have only been five elections ever in which the winner had lost the popular vote. Those results may have bothered some people at the time, but the country survived. Can you name them? See the answer below.
The Dems are determined to make the EC an issue for the 2020 election. Many of the declared and undeclared candidates have advocated its modification or elimination. For example Elizabeth Warren has stated she wants to “abolish it because it meant that candidates avoided states that were not battleground states.” In my view, naturally, candidates, with a finite amount of time and resources, have always focused their efforts on states that are in doubt and spent less time in “safe” states that consistently vote one way or the other, and they always will. It is not because of the EC. In any case, that is not a valid reason to tamper with the EC. Without the current system candidates would ignore the small states and focus on the dozen or so large ones and on the big population centers. The former would lose any political “voice” they now have. Once again, Warren, like many others, is showing her ignorance of the history as I outlined above. Even worse are the comments of Rep Steve Cohen (D-TN) who said the EC was “conceived in sin” to “perpetuate slavery.” His comments were not only ignorant, but also inflammatory.
Clearly, the Dems are making this an issue because of the manner in which they lost the 2016 election. While they are fighting the last war they will be ignoring the issues that voters really care about, such as the economy, border security, healthcare, and terrorism.
Finally, don’t they realize that amending the Constitution is a long process and takes years. One does not simply wave a magic wand and make it so. It requires a 2/3 vote in both the House and Senate, plus ratification by the legislatures (or special conventions) of 3/4 of the states. Typically, this process takes years. It would most certainly not be completed by the 2020 election, and by 2024 who knows who the candidates will be and which one(s) the system would favor, if any. The EC system does not always favor the GOP. For example, in 2016 Mr. Trump had a very narrow and specific path to 270. He had to, and did, win a series of close races in states like FL and Wisconsin (aided, no doubt, by Hillary’s failure to campaign adequately there). Keep in mind that presently the Dems are virtually assured of the electoral votes of NY, IL and CA, which together will total 104 electoral votes in 2020.
Quiz answerer: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016). In addition,
on 14 other occasions the winner won a plurality, but not a majority of the vote. The last person to do so was Bill Clinton in 1996.