To follow up on my post on the Iowa Senate Democrats’ attempt to make the Iowa voter irrelevant I thought I’d share some background into the Electoral College from David Barton, founder of Wall Builders.

What Led to the Formation of the Electoral College?

During the Constitutional Convention, three proposals were originally discussed by the framers on how the president could be elected. Interestingly, those three proposals were rejected.

The first proposal was to allow Congress to select the president. This idea was rejected for three reasons: (1) rancorous partisanship would be encouraged in the Congress and the hard feelings residual for the losers of the contest would make any legislative progress following the election unlikely; (2) with Congress being such a relatively small body, and with it being assembled in one geographic location, the potential for foreign governments to affect the outcome of the election through bribery and corruption would be increased; and (3) if Congress selected the President, it would be virtually impossibility for the Executive branch to maintain its independence from the Legislative branch.

The second proposal was to allow the State legislatures to select the president. This idea was rejected for fear that the president might become so indebted to the States that he would permit the erosion of federal authority and thus undermine the federal republic.

The third proposal was that the president be elected by national popular vote. This idea was rejected not because the framers distrusted the people but rather because the larger populous States would have much greater influence than the smaller States and therefore the interests of those smaller States could be disregarded or trampled. Additionally, a nationwide election would encourage regionalism since the more populous areas of the country could form coalitions to elect president after president from their own region. With such regional preferentialism, lasting national unity would be nearly impossible.

The framers, dissatisfied with these three initial proposals, referred the issue of the selection of a president to the “Committee of Eleven” for further investigation. That Committee subsequently proposed an indirect election of the president on a State by State basis through a college of electors, a practice which had proved successful in ancient nations.

Why Was The Electoral College Method Chosen?

The electoral college synthesized two important philosophies established in the Constitution: (1) the maintenance of a republican, as opposed to a democratic, form of government (the explicit constitutional provisions on this issue, as well as the specific declarations of the Founders, will be examined later in this paper); and (2) the balancing of power between the smaller and the larger States and between the various diverse regions of the nation (this second point will be examined first).

When establishing our federal government, smaller States like Rhode Island had feared they would have no voice, and therefore no protection, against the more populous States like New York or Massachusetts. Similarly, the sparsely populated agricultural regions feared an inability to protect their interests against the fishing and shipping industries dominant in the more populous coastal States. These concerns on how to preserve individual State voices and diverse regional interests caused the framers to establish a bi-cameral rather than a uni-cameral legislative system.

In that wise plan, one body preserved the will of the majority as determined by population and the other preserved the will of the majority as determined by the States. As Constitution signer James Madison confirmed:

The Constitution is nicely balanced with the federative and popular principles; the Senate are the guardians of the former, and the House of Representatives of the latter; and any attempts to destroy this balance, under whatever specious names or pretences they may be presented, should be watched with a jealous eye.8

Consequently, in the Senate, Delaware has the same power as California with each State having two votes; but in the House, Delaware’s single vote often is completely negated by the fifty-two from California. Because of this different source of strength in each body, the votes in those two bodies on the same piece of legislation may be dramatically different. In such a case, before that legislation may become law there must be some compromise Ñ some yielding of the Senate to the will of the population and some yielding of the House to the will of the States. As James Madison explained, the electoral college wisely synthesized both of these important interests:

As to the eventual voting by States, it has my approbation. The lesser States and some larger States will be generally pleased by that mode. The deputies from the small States argued, and there is some force in their reasoning, that, when the people voted, the large States evidently had the advantage over the rest, and, without varying the mode, the interests of the little States might be neglected or sacrificed. Here is a compromise.9

James Hillhouse (a soldier during the American Revolution and a U. S. Representative and Senator under Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) also affirmed this principle, explaining:

The principle of the Constitution, of election by electors, is certainly preferable to all others…[because] Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York, may combine; they may say to the other [smaller] States, we will not vote for your man…[or] the agricultural will be arrayed against the mercantile; the South against the East; the seaboard against the inland.10

Consequently, under the electoral college system, the smaller States receive a slightly greater voice, proportionally speaking. For example, California is the largest State and its 33 million inhabitants have 54 electors, each of whom represents 614,000 inhabitants. However, Wyoming is the smallest State and its less than one-half million inhabitants are represented by only 3 electors Ñ one for every 160,000 inhabitants. This therefore gives Wyoming slightly more proportional strength. As Uriah Tracy (a Major-General during the Revolution and a U. S. Representative and Senator under Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson) observed during debates on the electoral college:

He [the president] is to be chosen by electors appointed as the State legislatures shall direct, not according to numbers entirely, but adding two electors in each State as representatives of State sovereignty. Thus, Delaware obtains three votes for president, whereas she could have but one in right of numbers [population].11

So, on the one hand, the electoral college tends somewhat to overrepresent voters in smaller States; and no matter how small a State is, it is guaranteed at least 3 electors because, as explained by James Bayard (a U. S. Representative and U. S. Senator under Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison), the electoral college supplied a “means of self protection” to “a small State without resources.”12 In fact, the combined number of electors in the eight smallest States (Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, and Rhode Island) produce the same number of electors as the single State of Florida even though Florida has a population more than three times greater than those eight smaller States combined.

Yet, on the other hand, if a candidate wins California and its 54 electoral votes, then that candidate is one-fifth of the way to the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency. Thus, while California accounts for only 11 percent of the nation’s population it can provide 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to obtain the presidency. The electoral college system therefore preserves a sound balance between population centers and between diverse State and regional interests, incorporating elements both of popular and of State representation in its operation.

Consider how this duality was demonstrated in the recent presidential election. If the national tally of the popular vote is transferred proportionally into a vote by the House of Representatives, the results would have been 210 Members voting for Gore, 209 for Bush, and 16 Members voting for others; Gore, therefore, would have narrowly won a vote in the House based on the will of the population. However, if the State by State votes are transferred to the Senate, since Bush won 30 States and Gore 20, the Senate vote would have been 60 for Bush and 40 for Gore; Bush, therefore, by a large margin, would have been the choice of the States. In short, Gore narrowly won the popular vote by winning heavily populated and narrowly concentrated urban parts of the nation (Gore carried only 676 counties, located primarily along both coasts and along the Mississippi River) while Bush was the overwhelming choice of the States and of the more geographically diverse regions of the country (Bush carried 2436 counties Ñ nearly four times that of Gore Ñ spreading virtually from coast to coast). The electoral college wisely weighs these competing interests in the selection for a President. In fact, John Taylor (an officer during the American Revolution and a U. S. Senator under Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) observed:

Two principles sustain our Constitution: one a majority of the people, the other a majority of the States; the first was necessary to preserve the liberty or sovereignty of the people; the last, to preserve the liberty or sovereignty of the States. But both are founded in the principle of majority; and the effort of the Constitution is to preserve this principle in relation both to the people and the States, so that neither species of sovereignty or independence should be able to destroy the other.13

James Madison agreed, affirming:

In our complex system of polity, the public will, as a source of authority, may be the will of the people as composing one nation, or the will of the States in their distinct and independent capacities; or the federal will as viewed, for example, through the presidential electors, representing in a certain proportion both the nation and the States.14

This blending of the will of the population and the will of the States is why it is possible Ñ and has thrice occurred Ñ that a President may win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote (on those previous occasions, the margin of victory in the popular vote was less than 1 percent). Usually, however, the electoral college tends to exaggerate the margin of victory of the popular vote rather than run counter to it.

The Benefits of the Electoral College System

There are three important benefits produced by the current electoral college system:

  1. Because a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes from across the nation, a candidate cannot become president without a significant widespread voter base. In fact, as has happened in three previous elections, the distribution of voter support may actually take precedence over the quantity of voter support. Therefore, the electoral college ensures a broad national consensus for a candidate that subsequently will allow him to govern once he takes office.
  2. Since the electoral college operates on a State-by-State basis, this not only enhances the status of minorities by affording them a greater proportional influence within a smaller block of voters at the State level but it also ensures a geographically diverse population which makes regional domination, or domination of urban over suburban or rural areas, virtually impossible. In fact, since no one region of the country has 270 electoral votes, there is an incentive for a candidate to form coalitions of States and regions rather than to accentuate regional differences.
  3. The electoral college system prioritizes the most important factors in selecting a president. If a candidate receives a substantial majority of the popular vote, then that candidate is almost certain to receive enough electoral votes to be president. However, if the popular vote is extremely close, then the candidate with the best distribution of popular votes will be elected. And if the country is so divided that no one candidate obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the U. S. House of Representatives Ñ the body closest to the people and which must face them in every election will then choose the president.

HT: Cynthia Merrifield (via e-mail)

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