If You Support the Electoral College
You probably fear that those you distrust might get too much power, just like the Founding Fathers
The fact of the matter is, the Founding Fathers had a hard time agreeing about how to choose a leader for the nation. The Electoral College (EC) is simply their cobbled-together compromise of how to do it — not some hallowed thing that needs to be enshrined for all time because it was so perfectly devised. At the time of the Philadelphia convention, there were no countries that chose leaders through a democratic election, and although many delegates were concerned about the pitfalls of having congress too involved in the process, many also didn’t trust the citizens to make an appropriate choice either.
One group of delegates felt strongly that Congress shouldn’t have anything to do with picking the president. Too much opportunity for chummy corruption between the executive and legislative branches
Another camp was dead set against letting the people elect the president by a straight popular vote. First, they thought 18th-century voters lacked the resources to be fully informed about the candidates, especially in rural outposts. Second, they feared a headstrong “democratic mob” steering the country astray. And third, a populist president appealing directly to the people could command dangerous amounts of power.
In each of the original colonies, there were stipulations for voting which primarily had to do with land ownership and a religious test. Overwhelmingly, it was the white men who met these other qualifications who were allowed to vote and it wasn’t until 1856 that white men were allowed to vote in all of the states regardless of property ownership. Our forefathers wanted to be sure that the rabble couldn’t vote against the interests of the landed aristocracy. They liked the idea of equality, but for the most part, that meant equality amongst other white men of means like them.
On the other hand, black men could not vote and since slaves made up a substantial part of the population in the southern states, the three-fifths compromise was established to try to mitigate this situation. This doctrine counted black people, most of whom were enslaved, as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors and for calculating federal taxes.
“In 1787, roughly 40 percent of people living in the Southern states were enslaved Black people, who couldn’t vote. James Madison from Virginia — where enslaved people accounted for 60 percent of the population — knew that either a direct presidential election, or one with electors divvied up according to free white residents only, wouldn’t fly in the South.”
The Electoral College is an attempt to manage all of these fears — ones that arise when people you don’t trust get too much access to power. Today democracies that elect their leaders are everywhere, and we don’t have to worry about people in rural areas not having access to information about the candidates. Black people as well as women are also now allowed to vote. But many people are still concerned that those they fear and distrust might get too much access to power.
In every discussion I’ve ever seen about the EC, some people always complain that they don’t want the interests of their smaller state to be overrun by faraway places with large populations like California. There are two things wrong with this explanation:
- The President has little impact on what happens in individual states. Each state has Senators and Congresspeople to advocate for their interests, and therefore the President, who is the leader of the whole country, should be determined by a pure majority. One person: One vote. Yes, I realize that we are a republic and not a pure democracy to start with. It would be impractical to have each American vote directly on every piece of legislation, but there is no structural or functional reason that doesn’t involve controlling the outcome to prevent each American from voting directly for the presidency.
- The EC actually fosters minority rule. Voters in the sparsely populated state of Wyoming have more than 3 times as much power as those of the average American. “For example, in 2008, on average a state is awarded one electoral vote for every 565,166 people. However, Wyoming has three electoral votes and only 532,668 citizens (as of 2008 estimates). As a result each of Wyoming’s three electoral votes corresponds to 177,556 people. Understood in one way, these people have 3.18 times as much clout in the Electoral College as an average American.”
One man I saw suggested that this was a way to protect the minority from the will of the majority. I asked him if, by that same reasoning, whoever gets less votes for something in Congress should get their way as relates to that bill, because we want to protect the minority from the will of those with more votes. I didn’t think so.
There are already too many things that the majority wants in this country that are thwarted by the will of the minority. We don’t need to keep encouraging that:
Three-quarters of Americans say that they would like to keep abortion legal, although some percentage of those people would prefer to see more restrictions. Still, based on what we hear in most of the public discourse, many people probably aren’t aware of that. “What it speaks to is the fact that the debate is dominated by the extreme positions on both sides,” said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll, which conducted the survey. “People do see the issue as very complicated, very complex. Their positions don’t fall along one side or the other. … The debate is about the extremes, and that’s not where the public is.”
There is also wide bipartisan support for new gun restrictions that would better screen for who has access to guns, but you might not know that either because the rhetoric that we hear and the actions of Congress don’t reflect that.
Increasing funding for mental health screenings and treatment, universal background checks, red flag laws and requiring gun licenses all get broad bipartisan support as well as the support of a majority of gun owners. (Red flag laws, also known as extreme-risk protection orders, allow police or family members to request that a judge temporarily remove guns from people who may be a danger to themselves or others.)
“You’d be hard-pressed to find something where the gap between public sentiment and legislative action or inaction is wider because you’ve got a clear consensus across party lines,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. “The gap is huge, and the congressional crowd is very much out of step with where public opinion is on this. And therein lies the frustration [of many Americans], as the frequency of these shootings increases.”
Shouldn’t we be encouraging things that facilitate the actual will of the majority of most Americans? Wouldn’t that be the patriotic and democratic thing to do? The Electoral College also discourages voter participation because unless you live in a swing state, the chance that your vote will have any real impact is nearly non-existent. The Electoral College robs Americans of the right to participate in their democracy and it creates more problems than it solves.
For one thing, the electoral process never developed in the way that the Founding Fathers imagined that it would. They didn’t envision a two-party political system and instead devised something to deal with a wide variety of unaffiliated candidates who would ultimately be sorted out by the House. “The Founders also assumed that most elections would ultimately be decided by neither the people nor the electors, but by the House of Representatives. According to the Constitution, if no single candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes, the decision goes to the House, where each state gets one vote.”
Electors are also not neutral governmental actors working to preserve the integrity of our democratic process. “Electors are typically chosen and nominated by a political party or the party’s presidential nominee: they are usually party members with a reputation for high loyalty to the party and its chosen candidate.” Over the course of the history of the United States, there have been 165 instances of so-called faithless electors, where the elector has voted for a third-party candidate or abstained from voting, sometimes altering the outcome of the election.
“Washington became the first state to fine faithless electors after the 2016 election in the wake of that state having 4 faithless elector votes. In lieu of penalizing a faithless elector, some states such as Colorado, Michigan, and Minnesota specify a faithless elector’s vote be voided.” This cumbersome and antiquated system does not further fairness or preserve democracy and the people who want to try to tell you that it does do so because they believe it serves their interests to assert that. However, the facts speak for themselves and they say differently.
Democracy is imperfect, and often messy, but it would be less so if the Electoral College were to be abolished. One person: one vote would encourage greater participation in the election process and force candidates to be responsive to the needs of so-called “spectator states” where there is little incentive to campaign. The vast majority of campaigning in the 2016 election took place in just 4 states because of this process. Clearly, that is not what is in the interests of the country as a whole and I don’t believe that anyone can convincingly demonstrate that it is.
The Founding Fathers were doing the best that they could to come up with some way to choose a president that the delegates could all agree upon. They, of course, had no way to anticipate how the political environment would evolve or how the larger world would drastically change from the one in which they lived. But that doesn’t mean that we have to stick with their cobbled-together compromise system.
The Electoral College was largely designed to keep the important choice of who the president would be in the hands of people the Founding Fathers thought they could trust to make that decision — people who looked like them and were in the same socio-economic class. Supporting the maintenance of the EC is in many ways the same type of thing. It’s a way to keep people who have different values and beliefs than you from being able to exert the power of their numbers. Majority rule doesn’t count if the majority doesn’t see things your way?
And if that’s what you really believe, at least be transparent about it. Don’t pretend that you are actually trying to support a timeless democratic bastion that truly works for fairness and cannot reasonably be challenged. The Electoral College is clunky and antiquated, and most of all completely unnecessary.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.