In Defense of the Electoral College

by Warren Ross

Of all the discussions surrounding the recent close presidential election, the one that should be of most concern to those who value freedom is the proposal to modify our form of government to directly elect the president by popular vote. Repeated appeals to the “will of the people” on the part of Al Gore and other Democrats are being coupled with astonishment and anger that the candidate who could win the popular vote might not win the presidency. Such proposals are not new – they have been an accompaniment to all close elections in recent history (e.g. 1960). Even some Objectivists have characterized the Electoral College as an “archaic” institution more suited to the elitist attitudes of the 18th century than the more democratic attitudes of the 20th. Some have guessed that the institution has something to do with the time it took to communicate the results in the 18th century. (Nothing could be further from the truth – the Founders were not that superficial).

It is worthwhile, therefore, to consider what the purpose of the Electoral College is, what the Founders were trying to do in establishing it, what alternatives they considered, and why those alternatives were rejected.

The first point to understand is that the Electoral College is only one of several mechanisms that accomplish what the Founders wanted to achieve. It would be a mistake to elevate this one aspect of the Constitution to an importance it does not deserve (as some sort of intrinsic absolute). In fact, if the Founders’ ultimate goals could have been accomplished with another means, it would not be wrong to substitute that means for the College. However, it will become clear below that the Founders exhaustively considered many other mechanisms, and found flaws in all of them. Further, it is the combination of mechanisms throughout the government structure that is important – one must look at the Constitution as an integrated whole, considering the influence of one means on all the others. (This is why Elbridge Gerry, in accepting the Electoral College system, stated to the Constitutional Convention that he would reserve his ultimate vote on this idea until he could see what powers were vested in the president).

What, then, were the Founders trying to achieve? Most fundamentally, they were trying to achieve a system that could protect individual rights from encroachment by any of the forces threatening them: an internal dictator, an external invasion, influence by foreign governments, or a gang of coercive citizens. The Founders were equally suspicious of and opposed to the tyranny of the monarch and the tyranny of the mob. (This opposition to mob violence is one reason John Adams had defended a British soldier who shot into a group of attacking Bostonians in pre-revolution Massachusetts). The Founders’ mission was to devise a system that ensured no part of the government nor any popular faction could gain so much political power as to become a threat to liberty.

We all know of the general system of checks and balances (modified from Montesquieu) that the Founders devised to achieve this end – the three branches of government, the bicameral legislature, the veto power of the president, the impeachment power of the House, the reservation of powers not specified to the states, and the judicial review of the Supreme Court. These are just the general outlines. The Constitution is filled throughout with methods and mechanisms designed to distribute power equally among the three branches and the states, all mechanisms implemented with the goal of protecting individual liberty.

With respect to the election of president, the goal was to ensure that the executive was independent and not a mere puppet of the other branches of government or of the mob, while still keeping his powers severely in check. Furthermore, the Founders wanted a system that was workable, practical enough that it was easily implemented and led to a definite, unambiguous conclusion. To achieve these goals, the Founders considered all of the following possibilities: that he would be elected by the House, the Senate, the judiciary, the state legislatures, the state governors or by direct popular election. There are very lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of each of these possibilities (some of which I’ll quote below) in Madison’s notes on the convention (Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, reported by James Madison – all quotes will be from the Norton Bicentennial Edition, paperback, 695 pp.).

Interestingly, of all the alternatives discussed, the least time was spent on the popular election of the president. It seemed obvious to the Founders that such a system tended toward the destruction of liberty. Elbridge Gerry (p. 368) stated that

A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union & acting in concert to delude them into any appointment.

The example given of such a group by Gerry is not important to us today, but consider the influence of such groups as the Sierra Club or the Moral Majority. These groups could (and have) substantial voting blocks among the populace, and could in principle obtain a very substantial minority or a majority of the population. However, the environmentalists are likely to be located primarily in California and Minnesota, whereas the Moral Majority are likely to be dominant in Texas and Oklahoma. If a pure majority of the population were to be decisive, there would be no effective check on these groups violating the rights of the people in other states containing few if any representatives of either group. To ensure the protection of the individual rights of citizens of those states, not only must the general populace not be given decisive political power in such a key selection as the presidency, but also the states must have an important role in the selection, a role that could sufficiently counter the evil inherent in a pure majority.

George Mason followed up on the theme of mass ignorance among the populace (p. 370), condemning popular elections for making it possible that:

…an act which ought to be performed by those who know most of Eminent characters, & qualifications, should be performed by those who know least.

This emphasis on mass ignorance is the thing that grates the most on the modern intellectuals. In an era of egalitarianism, it strikes them as “elitist” that some men should declare themselves to be more intelligent than the lowliest worker. However, it is a fact that there is a difference in the level of knowledge of government and the requirements for a good executive among different people. Indeed, we strive to elect the best (at least the Founders did), not the stupidest. All the Founders are doing here is attempting to make the mechanism of election consistent with that ultimate purpose.

It is not accurate to reject their justification as a reflection of Platonic “philosopher king” elitism. Plato did not defend reason or man’s rights. He did not try to create a system that protected the rights of everyone, even the stupidest. The Founders, on the other hand, descendents (through Locke) of the Aristotelian tradition of man as a rational being, were creating a system that defended the rights of the lowliest, even while limiting his ability to wield political power. The Founders accepted, of course, the individualist principle that even one of low birth or occupation can by his own effort increase his knowledge and thereby become one of the governors. But until he did, they wanted to exclude him because he had the tendency to be swayed by totalitarians into violating liberty. (Anyone who has spoken to a college student knows that even a college education is not a cure here; in fact, it is the disease – the totalitarians are his professors).

On the issue of workability, Pierce Butler stated (p. 366) that “The government should not be made so complex and unwieldy as to disgust the States. This would be the case, if the election should be referred to the people.” Butler did not elaborate on this, but a distinguished Constitutional scholar, Walter Berns, emphasized the value of the College in producing an unambiguous result, and in fact of magnifying the margin in close elections (“Let’s Hear It For the Electoral College,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 1992). Candidates must win a majority (or plurality) in a state or they get no electoral votes from that state. This means that a candidate’s margin is increased when he wins a state (except in the highly unlikely event that he were to win the state’s popular vote completely), and people in that state are throwing away their vote if they vote for a very minor third- or fourth-party candidate. This has been very important in avoiding the balkanization of political parties that has harmed European governments. Distribution of political power is a desirable goal, but the complete disintegration of the executive branch, requiring the need for coalition governments and backroom deals to get one party elected, would not serve the protection of individual rights. (Imagine the two major-party candidates having a runoff with Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and the libertarian candidate, and having to dicker with these three for their votes in order to become the president.)

Once the Founders rejected the idea of direct popular election of the president, they spent a lot of time and effort working out the best alternative. Each of the alternatives that they rejected gave too much power to one branch or another – considered in the entire context of all the powers given (or reserved) to each. As an example, it was thought that the president should not be elected by the House of Representatives, because that body was charged with the power to impeach the president, and it never would if he was a “creature of the House.” Nor would he be an independent check on the legislative branch if his election were dependent on that branch. The Founders went through each of the alternatives systematically, presenting the pros and cons of each, considering the full context of the powers granted to each and the role of each in checking the power of the others. There were some legitimate options, but they settled on the concept of Electors that were to meet at the same time in each state (the same time so as not to be able to communicate with or influence the others during their voting process, to avoid the danger of “cabal”), who were elected by a vote in their respective states in a winner-take-all fashion. To protect the smallest states, the number of electors was not taken strictly in proportion to population, but in proportion to the total of the number of senators and representatives from each state in the national legislature. This is not a great tilt of the balance away from popular proportions, but it helps the tiniest states.

As stated earlier, the details of the mechanism that the Founders implemented are not as important (especially for any one particular mechanism) as the overall goal of protecting rights by balancing power and creating a workable, non-contradictory system. The Electoral College contributes to their goals in the ways described above. The Founders, far from creating a system dependent on the technology, population, or other superficial features of the times, were men who thought deeply in terms of political principles and yet were practical men who knew how to get an extraordinarily complex job done. Their fascinating debates are recorded in Madison’s notes, and anyone who wishes to see the quality of their reasoning or their arguments on any one issue is urged to consult that volume.

It would be very unwise to tamper with the structure of the government the Founders created without considering the implications for the entire structure and for the goals of that government. We can easily see through collectivist appeals to “the will of the people,” but we should be equally wary of the other arguments being presented today for the abolition of the Electoral College. If such arguments were being presented by well-meaning constitutional scholars who loved liberty and had the powers of intellect and integration of the Founders, that would be one thing. But the fact that such arguments are presented by the hip, college-educated journalistic crowd, or their professors who share none of our values, and are presented in terms of “changing outdated, antiquated government mechanisms of the 18th century” should make us all the more protective of the College. It is neither outdated nor problematic, which we’ll all have a chance to see once Al Gore fails in his attempts to promote himself to the presidency by equating a dimple with a vote.

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