Why we have the Electoral College

Originally published in Marquette Magazine in 2012

Established in 1787, the Electoral College is as old as the U.S. Constitution. Dr. Paul Nolette, assistant professor in the department of political science, explains why we still use the Electoral College system to elect our president instead of the popular vote.

Turn on your favorite TV news program and you’re likely to hear about how each presidential candidate is faring among “Wal-Mart Moms,” “NASCAR Dads,” or another critical voting group. However, this presidential election will ultimately be decided by the 538 members of the Electoral College. Why is the Electoral College part of the Constitution? And why does it still exist?

During the debates over the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton’s defense of the Electoral College suggested that electors would bring greater wisdom to presidential selection.

“A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations,” he wrote in “Federalist #68.”

Several of the Constitution’s framers viewed the Electoral College as a protection of state power. Individual states would send electors who would presumably prevent the election of a candidate threatening to centralize power in the federal government.

Many of the original justifications for the Electoral College have less force today. Other constitutional features meant to protect the states have since changed. The 17th Amendment, for example, shifted the selection of senators from state legislatures to popular election.

The notion that electors have better deliberative capacity than the general populace is now passé, especially since electors today are partisan activists who commit themselves to a candidate well before Election Day. So why do we keep the Electoral College?

One argument is that the Electoral College ensures more attention to less populous states otherwise at risk of being ignored by presidential candidates. If people directly elected the president, candidates would focus their attention on population-rich states like California, New York and Texas rather than smaller states such as New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin.

The problem is that under the current system, the vast majority of states are already ignored by candidates — including not only most of the smallest but several of the largest as well. The lion’s share of the attention goes to an increasingly small number of swing states that could realistically favor either candidate. This may be to our benefit here in Wisconsin, but not so for those in Nebraska, Rhode Island or any of the 40 other non-competitive states.

Perhaps a better contemporary argument for the Electoral College is that it has a tendency to produce clear winners. This contrasts with the popular vote, which remains relatively close in nearly all presidential contests. In 2008, for example, Obama won only 53 percent of the popular vote but more than two-thirds of the electoral vote. The Electoral College, as it typically does, helped to magnify the scope of the incoming president’s victory.