The antiquated Electoral College

December 12, 2016


WHEN THE FOUNDING generation realized the Electoral College they created contained serious flaws, they changed it to reflect emerging norms of democracy. We should follow their example.

The method of choosing the president was not designed for popular elections but for the deliberation of wise and accomplished men who were capable of discerning the qualities needed in a chief executive, according to Alexander Hamilton. Keeping the presidency away from the direct influence of the masses and beyond the intrigue of foreign powers would ensure that men of continental stature, recognized talent, and suitable ability were chosen to serve in office.

It was also an important feature of our federal and republican system, designed to give space and voice to small and large states. Presidents in our geographically large and diverse country would have to appeal to a truly national polity.

The problem in Hamilton’s calculations is that the Electoral College only worked as intended during our first two elections when it chose George Washington. Electors were allowed to cast two votes for president, with the candidate receiving the most votes winning, and the runner-up becoming vice president.

It broke down quickly after that as political parties emerged and democracy took root. Parties put forward candidates for both president and vice president and party-backed electors decided to cast both of their votes for each member of the ticket. The flawed system resulted in a tie vote in the Electoral College in 1800. Both the presidential nominee of the Democratic-Republican Party, Thomas Jefferson, and the vice presidential nominee, Aaron Burr, received 73 electoral votes. The election was ultimately decided in the House of Representatives.

The 12th Amendment was quickly adopted. After 1804, electors would cast a single vote for a presidential ticket. Not only was this a fix to a design flaw, but the amendment recognized and helped to solidify mass-based political parties into the American system of government, an important development in the spread of democracy.

The defect we confront today is far greater: The Electoral College has long since lost its original purpose as democratic norms have continued to spread. Each state uses a popular election as the method for determining its electoral vote.

Yet whenever a proposal is raised to change or eliminate electors in favor of democratically electing a president, the same fears are raised in its defense. Among those fears: that the demise of the Electoral College will lead to a fractured multiparty democracy with many little, ideologically driven or geographically based parties and candidates.

In fact, we have 50 case studies that disprove such fears, the politics and government of our own states.

The geographic size of the country during its first test of the Electoral College was just under 4 million people in a country of 864,746 square miles.

California today has about 39 million people living in a state of 158,706 square miles, divided among sparsely populated rural counties and large, diverse urban areas. Yet California hasn’t seen fit to adopt a statewide version of the Electoral College for selecting its governor. No state has.

And our Constitution demands that the United States “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”

If our republican nature is predicated, in part, on the Electoral College, it should seem odd that no state has been forced to adopt it to elect governors.

If the Electoral College is the lynchpin to the stability of a two-party system, why haven’t we seen a flourishing multiparty system at all other electoral levels that operate outside this structure? Indeed, without state-based electoral colleges, we still have two-party systems in each state and in most regions because of many other factors, including our own history and tradition, as well as our first-past-the-post winner-takes-all elections.

The hard reality is that we retain the Electoral College because of the difficulty of amending the Constitution, not because it is the key to our republican system.

Consider that it was designed to prevent demagogues but it is about to elect one. Designed to reduce foreign influence over the choice of our president, it is about to ratify the intercession of a hostile foreign power.

The Electoral College is going to elect the very type of person it was supposed to keep away from the presidency.

Just as an earlier generation recognized a flaw in the method of choosing a president and offered a remedy, we should act to fix the Electoral College. And make no mistake, a system that allows a person to win 2.7 million more votes but lose the presidency is one in danger of losing its legitimacy among a democratic people.

Our system of electing a president should better reflect the democratic norms that are now firmly ingrained in our contemporary political culture. This can be done without amending the Constitution if enough states adopt the National Popular Vote compact, assuring that the candidate winning the popular vote tally across the 50 states would take enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

Fixing the Electoral College isn’t a radical departure but the sign of a mature, democratic people.