When presidential electors cast the real votes for president and vice president, they do so amid a swirl of complaints about the Electoral College. Many Americans earnestly question why they cannot simply vote for president and let the candidate with the most popular votes win. How much harm would it do to abolish or nullify the Electoral College?
At the Constitutional Convention, the framers first considered the concept of electors on June 2, 1787. James Wilson made a novel proposal: Divide each state into districts where eligible voters would choose “Electors of the Executive magistracy.” In other words, he proposed an electoral college.
Wilson expressed that this would provide executive independence and “produce more confidence among the people . . . than an election by the national Legislature.” While generating a bit of support, Wilson’s proposal failed in an 8-2 vote. Yet it would return in the end—near the conclusion of the Convention—when James Madison drafted the language in Article II of the Constitution that provides the framework for the Electoral College.
Throughout the Convention, various delegates expressed support for a direct election, including Madison, but never with the arguments most often heard today. They spoke not of fairness nor of “one person, one vote,” but of the kind of candidates who might win and how they would conduct themselves in office. The men who wrote the Constitution were concerned with outcomes, not inputs. They understood that the test of an election system is more than mere majoritarianism. With few exceptions, the framers wanted an independent executive. That ruled out giving the choice to some other group of politicians—especially Congress.
A direct popular election was an obvious alternative, which the framers considered and then rejected for several reasons—including practical concerns about conducting a nationwide election and about ordinary citizens’ lack of personal knowledge of presidential contenders. The Electoral College ameliorates the first concern by containing disputes in particular states, preventing any possibility of a nationwide recount, and limiting the effects of fraud within a state to just that one state’s electoral votes. (On the other hand, voter ignorance is likely worse today than in 1787—very few voters have any direct personal knowledge of candidates even for state offices.)
The main reason to reject a direct election was fear that regional divisions or differences between states would cause the system either to break down or lose legitimacy. The obvious divide was between small and large states. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut found “the objection drawn from the different sizes of the States . . . unanswerable.” Voters would tend to favor candidates from their own state, giving larger states such an advantage that delegates from smaller states feared their states’ people and interests would be ignored in presidential politics.
The growth of the largest metroplexes and the development of print and broadcast media markets have only increased the danger to people in relatively small states outside of these areas. A single California county today contains more people than each of 41 other states (Los Angeles County, with over 10 million residents). Earlier this year, both chambers of the South Dakota Legislature passed a resolution in support of the Electoral College, finding that it “creates a needed balance between rural and urban interests and ensures that the winning candidate has support from multiple regions of the country.”
The Electoral College prevents candidates from winning simply by driving up the popular vote (legitimately or otherwise) in a few states where they are already popular. Those “safe states” remain important, however, as the base that gives their preferred party and candidate legitimacy. From there, the Electoral College creates an incentive for campaigns to expand into marginal states.
Because the Electoral College requires a majority, at least some of the framers suspected it would often deadlock and throw the election to the House of Representatives. This meant, in effect, that the Electoral College would nominate and then the House would elect presidents. But this has happened only twice, in 1800 and 1824. Instead, in part because of the Electoral College, American politics has almost always featured two competing national coalitions.
The Electoral College works even better than the American founders hoped. It allows states to remain in charge of elections, contains disputes, limits fraud, and promotes a duopoly of diverse national coalition parties rather than a proliferation of interest-group or geographic parties.
Unfortunately, all this is in danger given the recent progress of the National Popular Vote interstate compact. In 2006, the NPV campaign advanced a novel idea to make “every vote equal.” Instead of amending the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College, they suggested simply convincing states to ignore their own voters and choose presidential electors based on the national popular vote. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly forbids this, even though it would create an ad hoc direct election for president. The NPV compact takes effect if passed by states that control a majority of electoral votes.
Today, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed NPV legislation. They control 196 electoral votes, but will lose two after reapportionment. Still, NPV is over 70 percent of the way to nullifying the Electoral College.
Directly electing the president would fundamentally change American elections. The federal government would have to take a much greater role in setting election rules and possibly administering elections. (Elizabeth Warren, during her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, explicitly linked federalizing elections and abolishing the Electoral College.) Giant metropolises would gain power at the expense of other voters. Splinter parties, spoiler candidates, and billionaires would all enjoy new opportunities in presidential campaigns.
If the purpose of government is simply to put force behind majority will, then the Electoral College is indeed an anachronism. But then so is the U.S. Senate, the federal judiciary, and the Bill of Rights. The late Michael Uhlmann, who first piqued my interest in this question, once wrote an essay entitled “As the Electoral College Goes, So Goes the Constitution.” If the Electoral College is illegitimate, then so are other checks on majoritarianism and limits on the power of the majority’s government.
Trent England is the founder and executive director of Save Our States and a producer of the film Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.
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