You may have been exposed to a few people who are against the electoral college as a means of electing the United States President. “The popular vote is a better way to make sure everyone’s vote counts” you may have heard them proclaim. You may have also heard the horror stories about presidents who have not won the popular vote but were still elected. With the way the US is today, you may even see the reasoning behind this and agree with it. If that’s the case, I am here to educate you as to why things are the way they are.
To begin to set you on the right path you must understand a few things that help clear up why we have the electoral college system in the first place.
The First item to know is what the Constitution says about electing the president:
From Article 2 Section 1
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Constitution says nothing about popular vote of the people or even necessarily people of a state voting for president at all. It just so happens that all states have decided to use the vote of the people to choose electors for the office of president. One state could choose a different “manner” of choosing the electors if they thought it was a good idea and could get the state representatives to legislate it. The states elect the president, not the people directly. “Why in the world would you do that?” many will ask. For that answer we must simply think of the purpose of the Constitution and the type of governance it establishes. We should all be familiar with the famous “checks and balances” that are supposed exist between the different branches of government. The branches of government are not the only competitors for power when it comes to checks and balances.
The Constitution mentions four different governing groups. One of these groups is foreign governments and therefore has no bearing here. The other three are within the United States and are groups listed as having powers either delegated to them or prohibited from them. These groups are federal government, state government and individual people. The checks and balances upon the first two of those groups were considered, at the time of the writing of the Constitution, just as important as the checks and balances between the branches of the federal government. It surprises many people in the modern United States to find that Senators from each state were originally elected by the state legislatures. The only federal position that the Constitution calls for election by the people to attain is in the House of Representatives. The seventeenth amendment removed that representation from the state and made it almost the same thing as the House of representatives in this regard. That takes powers away from the states and kills a big check and balance against the consolidation of power with the federal government. We today have always lived with it being that way and are accustomed to a much larger federal government role in our lives.
The original colonies could have remained separate sovereign states if they had wished. This would have made many small European-like countries in what is now the United States. Ultimately the colonies would have likely been either re-conquered or conquered by a foreign power, probably picked off one-by-one. The founders were well aware of such a threat in disunity, which is why we have things like the 3/5ths compromise or Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon against the French. It was very important to them to be united sovereign states. At the same time though, the states wanted to maintain their more localized power and character (which was a bad thing in the case of South Carolina and Georgia, but that’s a different day’s topic). How could they do that with a massive federal government essentially taking their place? In order for them to agree to this federal government they needed to have their own state representation and powers.
With this desire for representation of the states’ interests in mind, I now call your attention to the fact that in 1790 the population of Delaware was around 59,000 while Virginia had near three-quarters of a million people. With such a disparity in populations a system that uses the popular vote to choose the president would completely annihilate any voice the state of Delaware may have had in the matter and Virginia would rule the roost very easily. Just as in the different houses of congress, the state governments and the individual people should count for something. Is there a way to acknowledge the fact that the state government of Delaware has made the choice to be united, thereby giving up some power and that the different state governments need to be represented as equals with the other sovereign states in the election of the president? Yes, yes there is. This system mirrors the numbers used to represent the state governments and the individuals in congress. Each state has 2 Senators regardless of their population. They
are were represented as equals. The Representatives from a state are based upon the population of the people who are also counted as equals. The electoral college helps today’s sovereign state government of Wyoming, which has 0.18% of the US population, but is 2.0% of the states, have it’s state voice in the form of 2 more electoral votes for president to give it 3 instead of the 1 it would have if it were only based on population.
I will admit that in today’s United States, where state governments get no say as to who is in congress, it is easy to wonder why in the world the president isn’t selected by the popular vote of the people as well since we see no state representation anywhere else. The way we view states today makes them little more than very large counties within the sovereign state of the US. We should view them more as separate nation states united by the Constitution in order to better understand the electoral college.
Some people want the National Popular Vote plan, which a group called FairVote is pushing. This would be where a group of states agree they will give their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, regardless of who gets most votes in their state. The agreement would take effect only when the number participating can deliver 270 electoral votes (enough to win). As of 2010, Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia liked the idea. This is perfectly Constitutional to do, since a state can decide how they choose electors, but it also takes that extra symbolic step away from the state representation that the 17th amendment helped weaken.
I would like to see things be localized again and preferably not even have to vote for the president, but just have my state representatives vote on it. Also repeal the 17th amendment to get my state government back in a seat at the table. Doing this would put more emphasis on local elections and maybe people would once again know the names and records of their local representatives. The same number of people who are supposed to write our laws are also supposed to choose our president and I am ok with that.