Does The Electoral College Still Work? – Guest Essayist: Tara Ross
Our founding generation would doubtless be surprised to discover that America’s presidential election system has become the subject of some controversy.
Indeed, our Founders were rather proud of the process they’d created.
“The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1788, “is almost the only part of the system . . . which has escaped without severe censure . . . . I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”
Of course, Hamilton knew something that today’s history textbooks too often forget: The Electoral College and other constitutional protections were created so that we might accomplish the near-impossible: be self-governing, even as we strive to avoid mob rule and majority tyranny.
[For more, please see yesterday’s post about the Electoral College’s origins.]
Has anything changed since Hamilton wrote his words? Does the Electoral College still accomplish its intended purposes today, despite all the technological and other advances that we’ve made?
Yes! Technology may have changed, but human nature has not. Humans are still fallible. Power still corrupts. Bare majority groups can still bully others, left to their own devices.
The checks and balances in our Constitution—including the Electoral College—are still needed to safeguard liberty in our imperfect, human world.
The Electoral College operates today as a unique blend of democracy and federalism. We have a two-phase election process in this country. Taken together, these two steps ensure that both individuals and states are taken into consideration when a President is elected.
The first step in our presidential election is an entirely democratic process. We hold 51 of these purely democratic elections, each and every presidential election year: one in each state and one in D.C. Voters who head to the polls on Election Day in November are participating in this part of the process. Their ballots decide which electors will represent their states in the second phase of the election.
In 2012, for example, most voters in Ohio cast a ballot for President Barack Obama. Thus, the state of Ohio appointed 18 Democrats to serve as its electors. If Mitt Romney had won, then 18 Republicans would have been appointed instead.
While the first phase of our election is a democratic election among individual voters, the second phase is a federalist election among the states. This election is held in December. It usually gets much less media attention, but it is this December vote—not the November vote—that determines the identity of our next President. The Constitution provides that the candidate who gets a majority of states’ electors (currently 270) wins the White House.
Our election system is nothing if not unique! This unique blend of democracy and federalism provides many benefits that sometimes get taken for granted.
First, the system encourages presidential candidates to build national coalitions of voters. Candidates can’t focus too exclusively on regional majorities or special interest groups. Polling large margins in isolated regions of the country will doom a candidacy to failure.
In other words, Hillary Clinton can’t rely solely on big cities in California. Republicans can’t rely solely on Texas. To be successful, a candidate must win simultaneous, concurrent majorities in many states nationwide. As a matter of history, such victories tend to be achieved by the candidate who does the best job of reaching out to a wide variety of voters in many different parts of the country.
Those who do the very best job of it win in landslides, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1936 and Ronald Reagan did in 1984.
By contrast, Reagan once succinctly described what our elections would look like without the Electoral College: “Presidential candidates would be tempted to aim their campaigns and their promises at a cluster of metropolitan areas in a few states and the smaller states would be without a voice.”
The Electoral College provides another benefit that tends to go unnoticed: It controls the effect of fraud and error on national vote totals.
Think about it: In order to influence national vote totals today, you have to know when and where to steal a vote. And if one person can predict this location, then every poll watcher/lawyer in the nation can, too! Moreover, when problems do occur, these issues can be isolated to one or a handful of states.
Now consider a world without the Electoral College: Any vote stolen in any part of the country would always affect the national tally. Dishonest people could easily steal votes in the bluest California precinct or the reddest Texas one, knowing that they would be affecting the final outcome. Fraud would be rampant.
An American historian once wrote of the Founders’ views on their presidential election system: “[F]or of all things done in the convention,” Max Farrand wrote, “the members seemed to have been prouder of that than of any other, and they seemed to regard it as having solved the problem for any country of how to choose a chief magistrate.”
Surely they would be prouder still if they could see how well the Electoral College has stood the test of time.
Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College and for kids: We Elect a President: The Story of Our Electoral College. More information about Tara can be found at www.taraross.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.