Commentary: The Electoral College: A Relic Worth Keeping


By Robert Sanchez


Imagine the drama that would have erupted at Palm Beach’s posh Mar-a-Lago estate if an aide had informed President-elect Trump, “Vice President-elect Hillary Clinton is here to see you now.” Tweets surely would have followed.

It didn’t happen, of course, because the procedures for electing the U.S. President and Vice President were changed in 1804 upon ratification of the Constitution’s Twelfth Amendment. As a result, the runner-up in the race for the White House no longer becomes the Vice President.

Significantly, however, the Founders did not take advantage of that opportunity to get rid of the Electoral College. That’s because they saw it as a bulwark against the kind of “mob rule” that many among them had feared when they began deliberating on replacing the Articles of Confederation.

Moreover, most of the Founders also believed that the Electoral College was a fitting component of this new form of government they had created. After all, it was supposed to be a democratic republic, not a direct democracy.  Therefore, it is telling that they mended the Electoral College instead of ending it early on when the original process produced a problem: During his first term, President Thomas Jefferson was stuck with Vice President Aaron Burr, a man who — while still in office — shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

So the Electoral College already has been revised once, albeit long ago, and it could be altered again or even abolished. The key question now is whether changes are needed to ensure that the nation reaches a consensus on who should preside over the executive branch of the federal government.

Demands for change always seem to escalate after elections in which the candidate who won the popular vote lost to a candidate who won via the Electoral College. The losers’ apparent assumption is that if the Electoral College didn’t exist, their opponents’ respective campaigns nonetheless would have used the same tactics, with their attention devoted to securing swing states’ electoral votes.

Many pundits disagree with that assumption, noting that Hillary Clinton’s 2.7 million popular vote lead over Donald Trump was largely a result of huge margins she amassed while largely uncontested in California and a few other big “blue states.” Those margins that might have been significantly pared had the Trump campaign not focused instead on winning other states’ electoral votes.

As for the Electoral College’s future, the choices — as in 1804 — generally boil down to “end it,” “mend it,” “leave it alone,” or “let the states go their own way,” as Maine and Nebraska already have done by ending the winner-take-all practice used in other states. It is a practice that James Madison himself began to question later in his life — and a practice that could be altered while still retaining the Electoral College.

To make an informed decision about the Electoral College’s future, it helps to recall why this convoluted process was created in the first place.  The answer can be found in a careful reading of the Federalist Papers, the series of brilliant essays penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay urging ratification of a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

They wrote because ratification wasn’t a sure thing. Having only recently been freed from a British monarch’s tyranny, the 13 colonies were understandably fearful of ceding too much power to a strong central government. There were also regional differences that had to be addressed to keep the new nation from falling apart.

The Constitution’s backers, especially Madison, realized that they had to include provisions to assuage the fears and address the regional tensions. A key step was drafting the 10 amendments collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Especially helpful among those was the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states any powers not assigned to the federal government.

The Electoral College was the result of yet another compromise reached at a time when the young nation was even more polarized than it is today. Not only was there the philosophical divide over how to divvy up power between the feds and the states, but there were also those deep regional tensions between the North and the South over trade, tariffs, slavery, and other issues.

Neither side of the Mason-Dixon Line wanted to be dominated by the other. In a popular vote election, southern states with roughly half of the nation’s population would have been overwhelmed by the North because more than one-third of the South’s residents were slaves, who weren’t allowed to vote.

The South also would have been at a disadvantage in Congress except for yet another compromise that was highly controversial even then: In the population calculations for representation in the House of Representatives – one of the factors in determining each state’s allotment of Electoral College votes – slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person.

So the Electoral College is sometimes criticized nowadays as an 18th Century relic. However, as Gettysburg College Professor Allen Guetzo and Washington, D.C. attorney James Hulme pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed column, “If anything, it was the Electoral College that made it possible to end slavery, since Abraham Lincoln earned only 39 percent of the popular vote in the election of 1860, but won a crushing victory in the electoral college.”

They added that the Electoral College is a force for political stability and that while it “may appear inefficient. The Founders were not interested in efficiency. They were interested in securing ‘the blessings of liberty.’ The Electoral College is, in the end, not a bad device for securing that.”


Featured Image: Constitutional Convention, Independence Hall, Philadelphia