Since the election I have had several requests to do a blog about what the Electoral College (EC) is and what purpose it serves. The question is reminiscent of the same question that was asked following the 2000 election when the Electoral College and the “popular vote” split between Bush and Gore. You may ask why I put the popular vote in quotations, and that is an easy question to answer: there is no such thing as a constitutional popular vote for president and as such it is a measureable myth of sorts.
Obviously most people know that the Electoral College is outlined in the Constitution (Article II, Section 1); however, it is 1) the value of the Electoral College and 2) how it came to be which causes confusion and creates a bit of disinterest in the electoral process. First, I will tackle the most common questions surrounding its value in today’s world. Second, I will give some background as to why the Framers of the Constitution felt it necessary for the resistance of tyranny.
Question #1: Where does the number come from?
There are 538 electors (half plus one equals 270 to win) which make up the EC and the number of those electors represents the composition of Congress; one for each of the 435 voting members of the House and one for each of the 100 voting members of the Senate. I know you are beginning to question my math skills, but do not be concerned! The additionally 3 electors represent the non-voting “representatives” from the District of Columbia.
Questions #2: Why do some states have more this time than 2008?
Great question! The answer: reapportionment. Reapportionment takes place after every census based on the changes in population from state to state (and district to district). For example, from 2008 to 2012 Ohio and New York lost 2 electoral votes each and Texas gained 4 electoral votes. As population changes so does representation in the House and the electoral allocation.
Questions #3: Since the “popular vote” does not count, why bother voting?
Well, this is where I hear people showing concern as to whether to vote or not. The statewide popular vote does determine the electoral allocation. So, yes you should vote…but only if you take enough time to care and become at least moderately informed. [Quick Tip: If you do not know the names of both the current president and vice-president, do your neighbors, children, and fellow citizens a favor and keep it at the house; you can always vote on American Idol instead!!!]
Now, this is where the water really muddies and we must begin transitioning into the purpose of the EC. Our Constitution was designed, regardless of what your high school teacher or friendly neighborhood lefty may have told you, to enumerate (grant) certain specific powers to the government of the United States; the rest of which would be “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people (Amendment 10)…Seriously, it says it in there and was written by the same guy who designed the framework of the Constitution (James Madison). In a nut shell, this means that the states maintain a level of sovereignty and this is the first step into understanding why exactly the EC is important: (semi) sovereign states choose presidents, not the general public.
In fact, the EC was an elaborately developed strategy to avoid a popular vote because the only thing the Framers may have feared more than the tyranny of a king was a tyranny of the majority. Actually, the whole idea of even having a president was quite contentious, but I will refrain from that discussion for the purpose of keeping it as short as possible. But what of all the cries of majority rule and we must follow the will of the people(?)…well, to state it simply, that is a bunch of crap. Consider the words of Madison (Oct. 5, 1786) concerning majority rule: “In fact it is only reestablishing under another name and a more specious form, force as the measure of right.” Additionally, Madison (Oct. 17, 1788) warns that government’s oppressive capacity does not come from “acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.” Majority rule was anything but a well-respected concept then, as it should be now.
However, if you are still not convinced that majority rule (which always results in the minority being taken advantage of, or worse) is a bad thing let me remind you of a few incidents in the history of both the US and the world in which the much-fabled majority ruled: Jim Crow and slavery in America and the Jewish Holocaust orchestrated by that hero of democracy, Adolf Hitler. Still want to order up a heaping helping of good ole democracy? [Note: that is why we are guaranteed a republican form of government in the Constitution and the term democracy does not show up even once.]
There were other alternate ideas for voting the president into office, one was a vote by the House of Representatives (similar to the parliamentary system of England) and it was even kicked around that the Senate should elect the president. These ideas were unsuccessful because they placed into peril the concept of the separation of powers by putting the legislature in control of the executive branch; and, seeing how much politicians try to bribe the people to get into office, it is hard to imagine the hijinks that would have occurred in that format.
Because of those reasons (primarily) the EC was born as a system for which states chose the president, but not necessarily through any direct vote of the people. [Fun Fact: each state retains the power to determine how electors will be selected; so, if the states decided to let the state legislatures pick the electors, they could and the citizens of the state would no longer be able to vote for the president (depending on the structure of the state constitutions, of course).] People often point to the limited campaigning in the several swing states as a solid justification for the popular vote by noting that more states would be important; however, that is naïve at best. Instead of campaigns in the swing states, politicians would merely double down on large population centers in political strongholds to boost their margins in those areas in an attempt to outpace the popular vote of any competitors. Thus, states like California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois would become major players in presidential politics and it would seem profoundly imprudent to give California any further say in the president than they already have…besides they are too busy screwing up their own state to need any more responsibilities.
The Electoral College seems to be wrapped in a shroud of mystery, but is a relatively simple and very relevant creation of our Framers. The problem that comes in explaining it is that it requires the acknowledgement that majority rule is a profoundly poor system (a truth that the very designers of the system knew well). Our Framers were not some obscure set of hick farmers with a lack of understanding of the principles of an organized society (as is sometimes suggested); instead they were a very highly educated, well-studied group of political scholars. If you doubt this I would suggest you visit the Library of Congress and review the display of Jefferson’s personal library; it is full of volumes of political theory from Plato to John Locke (in French, English, and Latin). They studied and understood political history and what had led to the failures of republics and the rapid erosion of liberty that plagued democracies throughout history; therefore, it is no wonder that liberty in America has survived many assaults and continues beyond the accepted life-expectancy of a free society. We have already irreparably damaged a part of our Constitutional structure through the perversion that is the 17th Amendment (subject for another blog); and it is uncertain how many more assaults, by those who wish to impose the will of the majority through the police power of government, that our republic may be able to survive.