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.

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4 Comments

  1. The problematic state-by-state winner-take-all laws to award electoral college votes were eventually enacted by 48 states AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution.

    The Founding Fathers only said in the U.S. Constitution about presidential elections (only after debating among 60 ballots for choosing a method): “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, Only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote.

    In 1789 only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all rule to award electoral votes.

    The winner-take-all rule is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all rule (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all rule.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state’s electoral votes.

    As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states.

    The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, along district lines (as has been the case in Maine and Nebraska), or national lines.

    The National Popular Vote bill would end the disproportionate attention and influence of the “mob” in a handful of closely divided battleground states, such as Florida, while the “mobs” of the vast majority of states are ignored. 98% of the 2008 campaign events involving a presidential or vice-presidential candidate occurred in just 15 closely divided “battleground” states. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). Similarly, 98% of ad spending took place in these 15 “battleground” states.

    The state-by-state winner-take-all system does not provide some kind of check on the “mobs.” There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector’s own political party. The electors are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

    NationalPopularVote.com

  2. As the most populous state in the nation, holding 55 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Presidency, California has a large role in electing the next president. At the same time, presidential campaigns have recently focused on a handful of other, “battleground” states. How do Californians feel about changing to a system in which the president would be elected by direct popular vote instead of by the Electoral College? Today, 70 percent of residents and likely voters would support this change, while 21 percent of residents and 22 percent of likely voters would prefer that the Electoral College system continue Democrats (76%) and independents (74%) are more likely to support a change to direct popular vote than Republicans, but 61 percent of Republicans would also support this change. Among likely voters, support for this change is 6 points higher than in October 2004 (64%).

    “For future presidential elections, would you support or oppose changing to a system in which the president is elected by direct popular vote, instead of by the Electoral College?”

    All adults: 70% support changing to direct popular vote, 21% oppose, 9% don’t know

    Likely voters: 70% support, 22% oppose, 8% don’t know

    Democrats: 76% support, 15% oppose, 9% don’t know

    Republicans: 61% support, 30% oppose,9% don’t know

    Independents: 74% support, 20% oppose, 6% don’t know

  3. As the most populous state in the nation, holding 55 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Presidency, California has a large role in electing the next president. At the same time, presidential campaigns have recently focused on a handful of other, “battleground” states. How do Californians feel about changing to a system in which the president would be elected by direct popular vote instead of by the Electoral College? Today, 70 percent of residents and likely voters would support this change, while 21 percent of residents and 22 percent of likely voters would prefer that the Electoral College system continue Democrats (76%) and independents (74%) are more likely to support a change to direct popular vote than Republicans, but 61 percent of Republicans would also support this change. Among likely voters, support for this change is 6 points higher than in October 2004 (64%).

    “For future presidential elections, would you support or oppose changing to a system in which the president is elected by direct popular vote, instead of by the Electoral College?”

    All adults: 70% support changing to direct popular vote, 21% oppose, 9% don’t know

    Likely voters: 70% support, 22% oppose, 8% don’t know

    Democrats: 76% support, 15% oppose, 9% don’t know

    Republicans: 61% support, 30% oppose,9% don’t know

    Independents: 74% support, 20% oppose, 6% don’t know

    http://nationalpopularvote.com/pages/polls.php#CA_2008OCT

  4. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill preserves the Electoral College, while assuring that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election.

    Elections wouldn’t be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be equal and counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    Now 2/3rds of the states and voters are ignored — 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Voter turnout in the “battleground” states has been 67%, while turnout in the “spectator” states was 61%. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. It does not abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action, without federal constitutional amendments.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2208145434#

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