Every four years we have a presidential election, and every presidential election at least one person complains bitterly about that
barbaric anachronism, the Electoral College. And they’re always wrong. Since I won’t be around to enlighten anyone in 2012, I’m going to do so now, when nobody cares.
The Electoral College is a group of people selected by the states that decide who becomes the next president. There is a little more that goes on, especially when no candidate has a majority, but that’s basically it. Each state produces a number of electors equal in number to its members in Congress — two from the Senate, and anywhere from 1 to 53 from the House of Representatives. There is no Constitutional requirement for a popular vote; instead, the electors are chosen by each state as the legislature of that state specifies (Article II, Section I of the Constitution, modified by the 12th Amendment). Every state legislature has chosen to appoint electors to reflect a statewide popular vote, but they didn’t have to do so.
Because there is only an approximate correspondence between electors and population, the electoral decision occasionally contradicts the national popular vote — this happened most recently in the 2000 race between Bush and Gore. Among all the other issues and conflicts of the time, a number of people pointed out that the situation made no sense; if the election was supposed to reflect the will of the people, but didn’t, it was broken. The only rational solution was to abolish the Electoral College and appoint the president by a national popular vote. The Electoral College, they said, was a dangerous anachronism.
Whether or not the Electoral College is an anachronism depends a great deal on how the government ought to be formed. This argument over the College is only the latest expression of a conflict that has been fought since before the Constitution was even fully written. Simply put, should the United States be national or federal?
Our first government after independence was the Continental Congress, formed around the Articles of Confederation. It was a federal system and 13 newly-independent states met together to address their problems and work for a mutually-beneficial future. Each state was separate and sovereign, and they convened as equals.
As a result of the member states being sovereign, the Congress had very limited authority to enforce its decisions and the federation grew weaker and more factious. A convention was held to discuss how the Articles of Confederation could be strengthened, but it instead produced an alternate blueprint for government, the U.S. Constitution. Many of the delegates to the convention believed that political survival could only be ensured by combining the sovereign states into a single, unified nation, while others stood by the original federal model (read “The Anti-Federalist Papers” edited by Ralph Ketcham for the totally sweet transcripts). After months of deliberation, the convention produced a Constitution which combined the pre-existing federal relationship between the states with a unified national form. The states surrendered some of their sovereignty to the new national government and the United States as we know it was born.
This uneasy (and unstable?) combination between the two ideas of federalism and nationalism has been the source of much growth and conflict in the last two-odd centuries of our national existence. Much blood and ink has been spilled, but the concerns of the Anti-Federalist faction (confusingly, the Anti-Federalists were more ideologically federalist while the Federalists were more nationalist) have been increasingly confirmed by the United States’ progression towards monolithic nationdom.
The Electoral College was designed for a country that had stronger local loyalties and far greater impediments to communication and travel. It was designed for a country where the central government dealt more directly with the individual states than with the individual persons. Truly, a lot has changed. But it was also designed for a country composed of normal people.
In the Federalist Paper No. 68, Alexander Hamilton writes that “The choice of several (the Electoral College) 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 (the president) who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.”
We all know how wild and bloodthirsty we become during the presidential elections. National campaigns focus on manipulating our emotions and massaging the facts. The system is set up to encourage shallow, hyper-emotional decisions in a one-day period that directly affects the next four years, and indirectly affects the rest of human history.
The political process would be strengthened, not weakened by a renewed focus on the Electoral College. Instead of pretend to be involved in a direct national election for two candidates, we should involve ourselves in the state-by-state selection of many hundreds of individuals. This would have the advantages of reducing the influence of political parties since they will have to conduct local campaigns for many individuals instead of national campaigns for a few, increasing our familiarity with the candidates since there will be far more opportunity for local and community contact, and place the decision-making power in the hands of people who will be able to dedicate far more time and deeper concentration on the job of selecting a presidential candidate than the average American.
One last advantage is the most important: by recognizing that the president is chosen by others we will become more appropriately suspicious of the office and thus less inclined to throw demands at it for every sort of political and economic relief — demands which can only be fulfilled, if at all, by an inappropriate and unbounded increase in presidential power.
The Electoral College is only an anachronism if the government has fundamentally changed. If we believe that that the national government should operate broadly on individuals, then the college is inappropriate — because power is not matched with representation. If, however, the national government should operate primarily upon the states, then the college is appropriate. It all traces back to the debates at the birth of the Constitution — what is the proper form of government? That question has not yet been decided, and we should not dismiss the Electoral College without understanding its significance.