Why Was The Electoral College Created? – Guest Essayist: Tara Ross

The Electoral College may be one of America’s most misunderstood institutions.  How often do you hear a media outlet or school textbook gratuitously bash our presidential election system as “outdated” or “archaic”? It’s said to be a relic of the horse and buggy era—a process created by slaveholding Founders who didn’t trust the people to govern themselves.

Shouldn’t such a broken process go the way of the rotary telephone?

Actually, no. The “problem” with the Electoral College isn’t the institution itself. The problem is that the media’s approach, combined with spotty teaching in schools, has left the general electorate remarkably ill-informed about its presidential election process.

A little education reveals the truth: The Founders had principled reasons for creating the Electoral College. They didn’t create it just because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet! To the contrary, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were a remarkably well-educated lot. They were students of history who knew the works of such philosophers as John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu. Many were lawyers or ex-legislators.

In fact, when Thomas Jefferson read the names of the delegates to the Convention, he described them as “an assembly of demi-gods.”

These delegates were well-versed in the successes and failures of other political systems, and they wanted to avoid the mistakes that had been made in other countries. Moreover, they understood human nature. They knew that people are fallible and that power corrupts.

This eminently qualified group of men understood how hard it would be to protect freedom in the face of all these challenges. They were determined to make it happen anyway.

With that background in mind, perhaps the most important thing to understand about the Electoral College—and the Constitution in general—is that the Founders were not trying to create a PURE democracy. They wanted to be self-governing, of course. They had just fought an entire Revolution in part because they had no representation in Parliament. The principles of self-governance were very important to them. On the other hand, they knew that, as a matter of history, pure democracies have a tendency to implode.

Our second President, John Adams, once observed that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” A signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, stated, “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils.” Another signer, John Witherspoon, agreed: “Pure democracy cannot subsist long, nor be carried far into the department of state—it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.”

In short, mob rule can be very dangerous.

Think about it. In a pure democracy, 51% of the people can rule the other 49% all the time, without question. Imagine what a mob mentality can do in the wake of an event such as 9-11. In fear or anger or immediate emotion, a bare majority could enact any law it wanted to, regardless of its impact on the other 49%.  Even very sizable minorities can be tyrannized in such a system. Religious freedoms and civil liberties can easily be infringed.

The Founders wanted to avoid that situation at all costs.

What, then, were they to do? How could they create a Constitution that allowed the people to be self-governing, even as they erected hurdles to stop (or at least slow down) irrational, bare majorities? How could minority political interests, especially the small states, be protected from the tyranny of the majority?

In other words, what constitutional provisions would allow majorities to rule, but would also require them to take the needs of the minority into account?

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention solved the problem by creating a Constitution that combines democracy (self-governance) with federalism (states’ rights) and republicanism (deliberation and compromise). This is why we have a Senate (one state, one vote) and a House (one person, one vote). It is why our government is divided into three co-equal branches: executive, legislative and judicial. It is why we have supermajority requirements to do things like amend the Constitution. It is why we have presidential vetoes.

And it is why we have an Electoral College.

When the checks and balances in our Constitution are respected, they enable us to accomplish the near-impossible: be self-governing, even as we avoid mob rule and majority tyranny.

Tomorrow’s post will discuss the logistics of the Electoral College. As implemented, is the system still serving the purposes that it was created to serve?

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 CollegeMore information about Tara can be found at www.taraross.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

27 Responses to “Why Was The Electoral College Created? – Guest Essayist: Tara Ross”

  1. kohler says:

    Pure democracy is a form of government in which people vote on all policy initiatives directly.

    Guaranteeing the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes and the majority of Electoral College votes, as the National Popular Vote bill would, would not make us a pure democracy.

    A constitutional republic does not mean we should not and cannot guarantee the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes. The candidate with the most votes wins in every other election in the country.

    Popular election of the chief executive does not determine whether a government is a republic or democracy.

    With National Popular Vote, all of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80%+ of the states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    With National Popular Vote, the United States would still be a republic, in which citizens continue to elect the President by a majority of Electoral College votes by states, to represent us and conduct the business of government.

    Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

    • DonM says:

      A national popular vote would hand all political power to the most corrupt precinct with the fastest printing press, as fraudulent votes would be printed with abandon. With the electoral college all the corruption of Chicago can not influence a single electoral vote in Indiana.

    • Michael souza says:

      The only way to ensure a just election process is to restrict voting rights to those who earn representation. We fought for representation, and it is dutiful to protect it. My idea remedies a deadly problem which the founders feared, that the republic will fall once the people realize they can vote themselves money, which I think is as unjust and immoral as anything can be. To remedy this, taking money disqualifies one from voting. A specific example: anyone who receives any form of welfare that results from vulnerable policy can not vote while receiving, and for a period ahead equal to how long the received it. Therefore, no one will be able to vote themselves money. Today, a large percent of voters serve themselves, and in doing so, mistreat their neighbors and fundamentally disrespect American Principles. And, if this policy we’re in place, with or without the electoral college, the democrat party would have to become loyal to said principles in order to remain viable. Then, educated Americans would have an option on Election Day. Bottom line: allowing dependent people to have a say in the financial behavior of those they depend on is the greatest American folly. Out of respect for our founders, I see it as a duty to remedy the thing they failed to.

    • Woody says:

      Kohler, I don’t know if you are deceiving yourself or trying to deceive others. In your support of the National Popular Vote fallacy you do your best to gloss over the very fact that if California allows 3 million illegal aliens to vote and this causes candidate A to receive the most popular votes and say Iowa is a member of this insane pack and the citizens of Iowa completely voted against that candidate A and instead voted for candidate B, their electors would still be required to elect candidate A against the absolute will of their state to elect candidate B.

      Talk about disenfranchising voters, National Popular Vote is a guarantee of that happening and on a large scale. But then again, National Popular Vote is simply a cause to get a Democrat elected because most of the current Democrat Party’s support is in the major urban areas on the coasts. Without National Popular Vote being enacted the Democrat Party will fast become irrelevant and powerless. With National Popular Vote they will have the power they need to steal elections and thwart the will of the people.

      National Popular Vote is the road that leads to tyranny and the end to this republic.

  2. Barb Zakszewski says:

    It kills me when I hear people (especially elected and government officials) call our Nation a democracy! WE ARE A REPRESENTATIVE REPUBLIC!! When I was in high school (somewhere just after the Dark Ages), I wrote a paper actually supporting the elimination of the ELectoral College, hard to believe. Our form of government and founding prinicples MUST be taught in our schools again. There is NO appreciation for our government or its founding principles.

  3. Rick says:

    perhaps if more school would mandate reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, its phrase “… and for the republic for which it stands…” would help remind everyone we are a republic.

  4. Homer Anders says:

    We need this kind of information to be given to the American People in a very big way !! Why not “partner” with others like Hillsdale College to do that!!!

  5. Homer Anders says:

    Same as prior, “partner” with people like Hillsdale College for larger distrubution!

  6. Barry says:

    The government and the world are so corrupt now that I do not want somebody else voting in my place. How many times has the people elected one person for president and electoral college elected somebody else? Some states have several electoral votes and some have very few. Does that mean the states with the bigger population elect the president?

    • Lynnese Paulson says:

      Number of electors determined by representative in house +2 in Senate.

    • bill kuhlmann says:

      barry It does. winner take all EV in each state makes it so. evs s/b done by popular vote. the electors would still have the option to vote for any candidate in the election.

  7. JoeKidd says:

    Related: Should Majorities Decide Everything? [Quoting] “Under a democratic system of government, how is an individual protected from the tyranny of the majority? According to Professor Munger, democratic constitutions consist of two parts: one defining the limits within which decisions can be made democratically, and the other establishing the process by which decisions will be made. In the United States Constitution, the individual is protected from majority decisions. Professor Munger warns, however, that these protections are slowly being stripped away as American courts of law fail to recognize the limits of what can be decided by majority rule. Professor Munger uses the case of Kelo v. New London to illustrate the dangers of confusing majority rule with a democratic system.” [End quote] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpeTd2xII7A h/t LearnLiberty(dot)org

  8. Phillip DeVrou says:

    I agree that a Republic is preferred over pure Democratic government. But the Electoral College as administered today is not a Republic or representative. Its been redesigned to serve both political parties.

    As Kohler says, Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80%+ of the states … I live in Louisiana and we are understandably ignore because our 8 votes are inconsequential to the result.

    The problem of battleground states is accentuated when one considers that candidates ignore the large, default red/blue states too. California has recently been decidedly Democratic. So Republicans give it only token attention. Likely the opposite for Texas. But CA’s 55 votes were proportioned according to the popular results, or maybe even the districts, candidates would fight everywhere for everyone’s vote.

    The math of winner take all does not work. CA had 13 million voters in 2012. The difference between receiving 28 vs. 27 EC votes is just 236,000, or 1.82% of voters. Yet the “winner” gets all 55 votes. Pushed to its extreme 6,500,001 votes for candidate D vs, 6,499,999 votes for candidate R means 2 voters controlled 55, or 10.22% of all the EC votes. Meanwhile, suppose 1,500,000 of LA’s 2,000,000 voters voted for Candidate R. IN LA candidate R received 1,000,000 more votes than candidate D, but only received 8 EC votes. On a proportional basis the two CA voters controlled 55 EC votes, or 27.5 EC votes per voter whereas LA voters controlled 0.0000008 EC votes per voter.

    The founders assumed the EC would function much like the Constitutional Congresses did where representatives would represent their districts first and their states second. The current EC does not function that way.

    • Steve Skillern says:

      The states determine how to spend their electoral college votes. Cali is a full on Dem state, so they have decided winner take all. Maine doesn’t do it that way. It is like what you propose. Unfortunately you will never change Cali unless you get a legislature and Governor who want to change it to be more representative. You can’t do that nationally, you must do it locally.

  9. Timothy Bair says:

    Hi all

    EXCELLENT article by Tara Ross!

    The ONLY thing i might add is that our three branches of government are NOT co-equal…they were created with specific duties and responsibilities to provide checks and balances to one another and tendency of each to tyranny

    Douglas V. Gibbs explains that quite well in this article

    http://politicalpistachio.blogspot.com/2011/04/myth-1-three-co-equal-branches-of.html

  10. Peter Hoffman says:

    The electoral college is actually what ensures that every vote matters. See the video on YouTube titled “Do you understand the Electoral College” for the full details.

    The tl;dr version is that the Electoral College forces candidates to campaign in every state and it greatly reduces the possibility of voter fraud.

  11. Keith says:

    The president of the UNITED STATES, not the president of the PEOPLE of the United States. He is NOT our monarch. He is NOT our dictator!! A simple perusal of the Constitution’s Article 2, Sections 2 and 3, the president’s legal job description, should squelch any doubt as to WHY we need to use the Electoral College and stop tinkering with amending the Constitution to suit our most errant whims! The president’s power over the PEOPLE is NON-EXISTENT, except for members of the military – and they must take an oath, so stating that exception. Stop making the presidency out to be a “rock star” position! He presides over the States – not the people!!

  12. Ralph says:

    In your scenario, you say “2 voters controlled…”. We have got to move away from that mentality. It was those two PLUS everyone else that voted that way. It is like our fixation on the game-winning/losing shot. It is always that PLUS every other play of the game. Those 2 did not control it, any more than 2 or 3 who stayed home for the other side did. Likewise our fixation on battleground states supposes that the vast majority of Californian or Texan votes don’t matter. That can always change. A “conservative” vote in WA isn’t likely to swing the state “red” – but that’s only true because so many “liberal” neighbors vote every single time.

  13. Ross says:

    I’m all for the electorial college. I would think that the lack of participation in elections by eligible voters should be consequential. Each state should have their number of electorial college votes reduced by the same percentage as eligible voters not voting. That should make for interesting election night predictions.

  14. Linda says:

    It seems to me that we are overlooking the obvious. One of the primary objectives of the constitution is to preserve a “more perfect Union”. The Central Government’s role is to try to make sure the the Union hangs together. What incentive is there for the less populous states to remain in the Union if everything is going to be decided by the will of the more populous states? We fought a very bloody civil war over this in order to preserve the Union. Imagine a national map that consisted of New England, Illinois, and the West Coast states, where all of the fly-over states had left the Union due to the tyranny of the majority in the liberal population centers. The coastal republic that would remain would have no chance of remaining for long. We do not have one national election for President…we have 51 separate and distinct elections for President in order for each state to be “heard”. The national popular vote is irrelevant. That is, in fact, more fair and in line with the purpose of the constitution. When the Constitution was amended to provide for the direct election of the Senate, it subverted the Founders intention for “republicanism” The Senate was created to elect its members by the various state legislatures to protect the interest of the states while the House was created to protect the interests of the populace. After the Amended Constitution we essentially have two houses of representatives and the States’ interests are left unheard. Stop trying to fiddle with the Constitution, and respect the genius of our founders.

  15. The states would never have joined the union if they could not protect their interests and those of their citizens. Eliminating the electoral college is really like a case of “bait and switch.” Now, if we did get rid of it and we let states change their mind about being in this union …

  16. I loved this article. It is informative yet easy to understand. I am going to have my grandson read this series in my ongoing effort to educate him with the truth, and counter the propaganda he is being taught in school. Thanks.

  17. JACK HIEHLE says:

    I believe this article ignored the obvious origins and purposes of the Electoral College. In it’s inception, the Electors were appointed by the various State legislators. The legislators were, in almost all cases, the most wealthy of the local community, certainly those with the most influence among the neighbors. In that way, the Founders reasoned, the land owners and educated, business owners, bankers, etc. could control the electoral process and assure that undesirable or radical individuals could not be elected to the high office by the “uneducated masses”. Certainly, then, there were vast uneducated masses, most of the citizens were barely literate, if at all. Today? Well, Electors are somewhat more bound to the desires of the popular votes in most States. As for the masses? Are they more trustworthy than before? Opinions will differ, won’t they?

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