The Electoral College

Is it still necessary?

The push to eliminate the electoral college is not new. Ever since the drafting of the constitution, Americans have been arguing about how to best self-govern and how to appoint the chief executive. There have been several attempts to dismantle the current electoral system over the years most coming after the loss of the candidate with the highest popular vote to the candidate with the highest electoral vote. Most recently, US Representative Steve Cohen introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral process as we know it in favor of selection by the popular vote.

The chief justification for elimination of the electoral college always seems to center around the fact that it takes the power out of the hands of the populace and gives it to a select few. Opponents argue that in a democracy the power rests with the people and the voice of the majority should elect the president.  These people are correct, in a democracy the majority vote rules. However, the United States of America was not founded as a simple democracy.

To better understand this complexity, you have to go back to the founding of the Union. When the colonies declared their independence, they did so for several reasons. One of the most important was lack of representation. The system that governed them, did not take into consideration their needs and they were not fairly represented in this government. The colonies declared their independence not only as a confederation of states, but as free and independent states. The final paragraph of the Declaration outlines this clearly:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

The colonies agreed to form a confederation of states. The Articles of Confederation outlined the structure for the union between them. Article II makes clear the importance of independent state autonomy and reads, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” From the very beginning the states were designed as independent sovereign states each with one vote in the Congress. This language ensured that the wealthier and more populated states could not unjustly impose their will on the smaller states.

After the revolution and gaining independence, the states came together once more in May of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. What resulted was actually the Constitutional Convention drafting the Constitution of the United States that actually outlines our electoral process for the President. Throughout the convention the small states insisted on equal representation and maintenance of state powers. They felt that a government controlled by the majority would neglect the minority. This concept was important in the construction of the final draft of the constitution and actually led to the compromise allowing the House of Representatives to be appointed based on state populations and the Senate to be appointed with equal representation from each state.

The argument that the electoral process should be based on the popular vote because this nation was founded as a democracy is entirely incorrect. The founding fathers knew from the beginning they did not want to allow rule by the majority in favor of protecting the minority.

Still this is not justification for some to keep the current electoral process. Some such as newly elected representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have labeled the electoral college as a shadow of slavery’s power on America. Additionally, in an op-ed written by representative Steve Cohen, he states, “It’s worth noting that the genesis of the Electoral College was in part an immoral and sinful protection of slavery”. These statements show an ignorance on the part of these representatives regarding the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention.

At the time of the Constitutional Convention, eight of the participating states were slave states and five were free states. The slave states included Georgia, Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, and Virginia. The free states included Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. One of the most vocal supporters of states rights and protecting equality for the small states was Oliver Ellsworth, representative from Connecticut a free state.  

Mr. Ellsworth argued throughout the Convention for the protection of state rights and the equal influence of small states among the large states. When the delegation was debating the composition of the senate he made his feelings clear stating in New England, he was sure Massachusetts was the only state that would listen to a proposition for excluding the states as equal political societies from an equal voice in both branches. The others would risk every consequence rather than part with so dear a right. Roger Sherman, another representative of Connecticut cautioned, “As the states would remain possessed of certain individual rights, each state ought to be able to protect itself; otherwise, a few large states will rule the rest”.

In fact, the question, “Shall the national executive be appointed by electors?” was moved by Mr. Ellsworth a representative of a free state. The motivation for the system of electors rather than the popular vote was not motivated by slavery, but by small states wanting the same footing in federal government as large states. The motion made by Mr. Ellsworth passed with only the slave states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia voting against it.

Another argument for abolishing the electoral college claims that the current system causes candidates to focus more intently on swing states rather than the entire populace thereby disenfranchising voters. There is no doubt that this claim is true, it is evident in the past several elections that candidates focus their efforts where they feel they will have the most impact. However, moving to an election by the popular vote will not correct this situation. Rather it would move the focus of the candidates to metropolitan areas neglecting the rural voters leaving them with no voice.

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The framers of the Constitution were well aware that relying on the popular vote would lead to failure. Alexander Hamilton stated, “In every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few and the many. Hence, separate interests will arise. There will be debtors and creditors, etc. Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few.”

The electoral college may not be the best way to select a chief executive, but it does ensure that citizens of all states are well represented and have a voice in their government. It also protects the minority from absolute rule by the majority. This, after all was what the nation was founded on, adequate representation for all even the minority.

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