The Electoral College Test

Much like a large part of the country, I was in shock last week over the results of the election. As happened with Brexit a few months ago in the United Kingdom, a wave of populism mixed with nationalism is leading to a surprising result that baffled the pundits and left a majority of voters unhappy with the ultimate results.

As often happens in such times, questions about the legitimacy of our election arose and this year, the validity of the electoral college is being questioned. For the second time in my lifetime (and the fifth time in US history), the current representations made in the electoral college as a result of the winner-take-all approach of state elector assignments has left us, as a country, with the possibility of seeing someone sworn in as president even though fewer people voted for him than his opponent.

An unfair system?

Many see this system as unfair and are calling for the electoral college abolition, replacing with something that will align with the popular vote instead. I have to admit that it is a tempting idea because history teaches us that the electoral college disfavors democrats. Every presidential candidate who won the popular vote but lost the electoral college has been from the democratic party (in fact, the democratic party itself was created as a result of Andrew Jackson’s defeat against John Quincy Adams).

But why would the founding fathers, who have managed to establish an amazing balance of power across the rest of our system, create something that would be so unbalanced? Why would they build something that fundamentally appears to undermine the will of the people at a time when they were avoiding the rise of tyrants.

At its most fundamental level, the electoral college was the result of political expediency, as the matter of slavery could not be resolved during the constitutional convention. Madison noted that:

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.

This would seem to present a solid argument for rejecting the electoral college as a vestige of our slave owning days but that may be oversimplifying things. In fact, one has to go into the arguments over the creation of the electoral college to fully understand its relevance.

And for that, we have to revisit the federalist papers, written by the geniuses who saw the future as it would be, not as it was.

Fight for the Future

At the birth of our new country, a dialogue started among the founding fathers as to what the future republic would look like. Great care was spent on figuring out how to ensure a proper balance and appropriate representation for all people. In Federalist Paper 10, Madison worries about “the mischiefs of factions”:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Now we start seeing echoes of the past apply to today’s political environment: two factions were fighting for power. The first one, united in its desire to see a change for America, is arguing against a whole religion (Islam) and a whole subset of our community (immigrants). The other, which won the popular vote, failed to “win” electoral college votes.

Madison believed in some kind of check against the tyranny of the majority. He also believed in a balance acknowledging minority opinions. It would come down to Alexander Hamilton to find the actual remedy: the electoral college.

In Federalist Paper #68, Hamilton lays out the logic and mechanics for our electoral college and sets its duties in a very specific fashion :

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

This clearly set the responsibility of the electors to make a decision as to whether a person is “endowed with the requisite qualifications” for the office of the President.

What this essentially means is that the role of electoral college is to choose people who will need to vote in good conscience on the basis that they believe a given person is the most qualified person for office.

Historical challenge

In an election year that has already defied history, a “faction” acting on some “common impulse of passion” is presenting electoral college voters with a tough question: is a man who has never held office or served in the military “endowed with the requisite qualifications”? Does he have “the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”

The electoral college was designed to prevent from unqualified people reaching the White House. And with the least qualified candidate in US history, electoral college voters are faced with a question of grave consequence: will they do their constitutional duty and vet Donald Trump based on his qualifications, or will they rubber stamp the vote that was cast last week?

When all is said and done, Donald Trump could still challenge their challenge their decision in front of the Supreme Court: If he were to win his challenge, it would amount to an abolition of the electoral college and if not, it would reinforce the important check and balance role that mechanism set by the founding fathers was put in place for.