The Electoral College: Essential to Our Federal Republic

In a previous article, we discussed how the electoral college works. In another, we discussed what happens if it fails to produce a majority for President or Vice President. A lot of people wonder why we have the electoral college. Many wonder why we don’t replace it with direct counts of the popular vote. Here, we will consider why we have the Electoral College and why it is important to American federal republicanism.

Why Do We Have the Electoral College?

In Federalist No. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote that

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.

How ironic that what is now controversial was originally one of the least controversial parts of the Constitution. Originally, some state legislatures directly chose the electors, but clearly Hamilton envisioned that they would be selected by the people:

It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust [selecting the President] was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men, chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

Popular input into the process was one of two important factors in selecting the president as we do. Today, popular input is the dominant force in the election of a president. The other aspect of the system that Hamilton valued was the desire

that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analizing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favourable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements, which were proper to govern a choice.

Hamilton hoped that the electors would meet and deliberate about who should be president. Nowadays, there is little hope that electors deliberate. Instead, they are typically party loyalists, quite committed to their particular candidate. Even if deliberation was expected then, it can no longer be considered a feature of the system. Even without the deliberative aspect of the system, we believe that it is worth keeping. There are several reasons for that.

Electoral College as a Bulwark Against Corruption

Hamilton argues that the electoral college provides “an effectual security” against “tumult and disorder.” Rightly or wrongly, Hamilton believed that the selection of a few to select the President would be less disruptive to the community than a direct election. He believed that passions of the public might be more subdued, at least usually.

It is not clear that Hamilton is wrong here. The recent rise in public passion surrounding elections coincides with the public adopting a more “democratic” view of how presidential elections should work. As attitudes shift toward supporting alternatives like direct national election of a president, public passion rises. It is not clear that there is a cause and effect relationship here, but Hamilton has not been proven wrong.

Hamilton invites us to consider the fact that the electors meet in their home states to cast their ballots. Hamilton writes that

Nothing is more to be desired, than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue and corruption.

These threats of corruption were believed to be most likely to come from foreign powers. By dividing the process of selecting the president among all the states, it is more difficult to corrupt an election. In modern terms, we have 51 different electoral systems (one in each of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia). Corrupting the election as a whole requires corrupting multiple elections.

Consider for a moment a very close race with a direct popular vote. Corruption in a large state, such as California, New York, or Texas, might swing the popular vote from one candidate to another. With each state having a set number of electoral votes, corruption in a state can only impact the electoral votes from that state. True, that might be enough to swing the outcome of the election, but it is unlikely that one state flipping due to corruption will change the overall result. It becomes harder to rig a presidential election as a whole with the electoral college. This is true whether the threat of corruption is from domestic or foreign sources.

Forcing a Majority

Most important, perhaps, is the requirement of a majority of the electors to select a President. In 1992, Bill Clinton received 43% of the vote, George H. W. Bush 37%, and Ross Perot 19%. None of these men had a majority. This is a potentially common outcome of a national popular vote to select the president.

The Founders had a great reservation about selecting a President without a majority of the body charged with that task. Hamilton wrote that “it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive.” A national election for president could be expected to produce that result frequently. The electoral college system forces a majority of the votes for president and vice-president to be cast for the winner, whether by the regular electors or in votes in the House and Senate.

Force a Broad Base of Support

The electoral college system forces a broad base of support across the country. One of the rules in the electoral college system is that the president and vice-president must be from different states. When the Constitution was written, the Founders were concerned that large states, in particular Virginia, would dominate the rest of the country.

There was also a belief that each state or region might run its own “favored son” for president. Then, candidates would have the support of only a particular region and not really have broad support throughout the country. Our electoral process forces a candidate for the presidency to have support across the country, not just in a single region of the country.

Supports Federal Nature of American Government

Consider the federal nature of the American system with power divided between a central national government and state governments. The central government was never intended to rule over the states. Yes, it is supreme within its sphere of authority, but its proper sphere of authority is limited.

The electoral college system is a piece of the federal structure of the Constitution. It provides a small, but important state check on national power. This is true even if the Founders did not seem to recognize this advantage to the system.

Each state has control over selecting its electors. The number of electors is based largely on population, giving large population states more votes than small population states. The number of electors from a state also includes two for the Senators from the state, so the states as institutions are also equally represented in the process. The electoral college provides a degree of acknowledgment of the states as part of a federal system. It provides a fully legitimate institutional role for the states in selecting the chief executive of the central government.

Electoral College Reforms – Following Maine and Nebraska

Could the electoral college be improved? Absolutely. State legislatures could adopt rules like Nebraska and Maine to select electors by Congressional District, leaving two statewide electors as a “bonus” to the candidate winning the state’s popular vote. This preserves the states’ representation in the system while more accurately aggregating the popular vote.

A hypothetical example

Let’s assume that we have a state with ten electoral votes, meaning it has eight congressional districts. Consider this election outcome. The Purple Party wins 45% of the vote. The Orange Party wins 30% of the vote, and the Yellow Party wins 25%. Should the Purple Party gets all ten electors from the state, even though a majority of people voted against them?

Beyond the popular vote, consider this about the hypothetical election. The purple candidate got the most votes in five congressional districts. The orange party won one district, and the yellow party won two districts. If the rules awarded seven electors to Purple, one to Orange, and two to Yellow. This would better reflect the strength of support for each candidate in the state.

One might say that Orange and Yellow are still “under-represented,” based on the popular vote. Perhaps, but the electoral college system magnifies the winner, but they are better represented than they are in the current system. An arrangement like this also makes it easier for third parties to get electoral votes when there is dissatisfaction with the two major party candidates. Is it not desirable to do so? With an electoral college system reformed in this way, third party candidates may find themselves more competitive. They can appeal to pockets of support within states to gain electoral votes when they may have no chance of affecting the outcomes in a statewide direct popular election.

When Electoral College Outcomes have differed from total popular vote

Has the electoral college vote ever conflicted with the popular vote? Yes, four times — in 1876, 1880, 2000, and 2016. Also, in 1824, the House of Representatives decided a four-way race for the White House. In that race, the candidate who came in second in popular vote became President.

Does this mean we should scrap the electoral college? No. Considerations of assuring broad national support and institutional state input into the system are just as valid. Our constitution established a republic, not a democracy. The benefits of the electoral college outweigh the rare instances where the electoral college outcome conflicts with popular election results.