In Defense of the Electoral College


With the latest presidential election, the debate on the electoral college has been revived. An opinion piece in the last issue of the University News called to abolish the electoral college. However, calls such as these are often grounded in a misunderstanding of our national and state governments.

The article begins the  argument by pointing out that the electoral college causes people’s votes to have significantly different weights depending on the state he or she lives in. This is true, but that argument forgets to consider the whole purpose of the Senate. After all, electoral votes are allocated amongst the states according to the sum of representatives and senators it has.

The article’s author is forgetting the Great Compromise. The debate between proportional and equal representation in the legislative body was one of the most controversial topics when drafting the Constitution. While most people’s initial reaction is to treat democracy and proportional representation as a god, it is important to go back to the purpose of this debate.

There was, of course, an argument for complete proportional representation: The bigger states had more people and would contribute more to the finances of the national government. However, small states were extremely hesitant to subject themselves to the greater power of the other states.

The agreement of the new national government was not to become one complete unitary body, but to form a coalition in which the several states could come together only for certain purposes—such as common defense and limited institutions of collaboration, like the establishment of a common currency. But this comes with a risk of creating too powerful of a central government.

The smaller states needed some extra mechanism to ensure that this entity would not have the potential to grow into a more dangerous one. Thus, they demanded equal representation. Of course, the result of the Great Compromise was a bicameral legislature: one chamber of proportional representation, and one chamber of equal representation.

As mentioned above, the agreement of this central government was to establish a coalition amongst the several states, not a unitary body. As such, the central government was not really a representation of the general people in all the colonies, but of the several states—which, in turn, is representative of the people within those states.

Looking back at the various state ratifying conventions, particularly that of Virginia in which Patrick Henry was present, it is clear that the words in the preamble “we the people” are actually totally improper. It was a common understanding that a more appropriate wording would be “we the states” because it was, in fact, only the states that were agreeing to this new government. Henry’s testimony in the Virginia Convention tells it best: “The people gave [the drafters] no power to use their name.”

While the preamble has no legal bearing on the Constitution anyway, this point is important as it shows that the purpose of the new national government was to govern between the states. Thus, the national government, including its president, would be a government by and of the several states.

Next, the article states that the electoral college is an “anti-democratic and unconstitutional institution.” The latter assertion can be quickly answered by referring the author to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and to Amendment XII.

Next, in addressing the founding fathers’ disagreement with democracy, the author stated that because they were all “fairly wealthy, they feared redistribution of wealth,” and described their scheme of diluting the power of the masses. This gives the reader the idea that the sole purpose of these checks against democracy was in economic self-interest. I would request that the author reads the speeches, letters and essays of the founding fathers and continue to tell us that their motive was in wealth rather than in protecting the natural rights of citizens against majority rule.

Even with the continued existence of some great evil, such as slavery, the American founding was one of radical freedom relative to its time. The idea that the founders were mainly motivated by their wealth is pure speculation. It is a much stronger case to say that they were motivated by the philosophies of John Locke and Charles Montesquieu.

While the electoral college does place restrictions on democracy, these checks have a vital purpose. Democracy is no god. It does not inherently lead to protecting the rights of citizens. There remains a tendency of democratic violation of rights. The electoral college provides a check against the bigger states trampling on the sovereignty of the smaller ones, creates a necessary decentralization of the election process that reduces incentives for fraud and requires presidents to have a broader, more moderate national appeal to represent all the states.

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