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In Praise of the Electoral College

A defense of the embattled system.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 8, 2000

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In Praise of the Electoral College_James Leroy Wilson-A defense of the embattled system. In Canada, legislative and executive power is combined in Parliament, where the leader of the majority party or coalition is chosen Prime Minister. Like the House in the United States, however, members of Parliament represent districts of equal population. If one party wins 51% of Canada's votes, winning by large margins in 49% of the seats, but another party wins by smaller margins in 51% of the seats, then which party has the mandate to govern, the choice of 51% of the Canadian people or the winner of 51% of the seats?

We know the answer. The party with the most seats becomes the governing party, and rightly so. Free government is not based on democratic will so much as on fair representation, which accounts for diversity and divergent interests among the people throughout the land. That Britain had more people than its American colonies was no excuse to deny them representation in Parliament, and in a case like Canada's, the populous central region ought not dictate policy to the sparsely populated Western and Maritime provinces without at least their fair representation in Parliament.

In the United States, not only must the people be represented fairly, but states as well. The states in our union are, by our Declaration of Independence, free and sovereign states. The Constitution that solidified union was written by delegates representing them and ratified by state conventions. States with large populations are not entitled to use the federal government to impose their will on less-populated states, for all states are sovereign and will remain so for as long as we live under our current Constitution. The nation's business is directed toward the benefit of all the states and their people, not the majority of people in the Union.

That is why districts within the House of Representatives stay within state borders. That is why each state is equally represented in the Senate - 2 Senators each - even though California has over fifty times as many people as Wyoming.

To object to any of this is to object to the Constitution itself. Under Article V, we can't even amend the Constitution to deprive any state of equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent; we'd have to junk it entirely and write a new one. The purpose of the Constitution is to keep a union, a union of sovereign states, together. Even at the expense of pure democratic will.

Which brings us to the Electoral College, which selects our President every four years. At the time of this writing, Al Gore appears to have barely won the nationwide popular vote for the Presidency but may have lost the Electoral College majority pending a recount in Florida. For many, this may appear to be illegitmate, unfair, and a slap in the face of democracy. It is none of these.

Each state is granted as many electors in the Electoral College as its entire Congressional delegation, which is, of course, its number of House seats plus 2. When a bill becomes a law, it had passed through both the House of Representatives, whose districts are of equal population nationwide, plus the Senate, whose states are represented equally. So a state's entire delegation had an opportunity to vote on the bill. That bill had also reached the President's desk for him to sign or veto. And that President was put in office with the same amount of representation of states in the Electoral College as they had in Congress. If the Electoral College is illegitimate because it isn't perfectly democratic, then so is Congress. With the Electoral College, as in Congress, the people are represented, but so are the states. That is the federal system. That is how we govern ourselves.

This is not to say that the Electoral College can't operate differently or shouldn't reform the "winner take all" system which appears particularly unfair when no candidate wins a state majority, but that is up to state legislatures to decide. One system, operating in Nebraska and Maine, divides up the state in its Congressional districts to determine one electoral vote in each district, while the most votes in the state as a whole would win an extra two. I prefer a proportional system to reflect the popular vote in the state. This would discourage vote fraud because such fraud would have to be massive and noticeable to affect more than one electoral vote, whereas in the "winner take all" system it could affect all of the state's votes.

Even without reform, however, the Electoral College is preferable to a popular vote, precisely because of the possibility of a popular vote loser winning the office. As Curtis Gans remarked on Election Day, a popular mandate for the President can undermine authority of Congress. When Congress doesn't pass what the President wants, we would make the reasonable assumption that Congress is undermining the will of the people. That would further cement the already too-common inclination of Presidents to bypass Congress altogether with unilateral military actions and executive orders. Congress, once the supreme branch of government, will itself come to be viewed as an undemocratic Constituional anachronism, just as many view the Electoral College now.

As it is, Bush might win the Electoral vote and lose the popular vote. This would weaken his mandate and power. And if Gore does win Florida, he will have "won" the election while losing nearly thirty states. He, too, would have a weak mandate and diminished power. With Congress also nearly evenly divided, it would be in everyone's interest to set aside partisanship and provide a record of accomplishment by the next elections. This will be a frustrating process, but far better than a newly-elected President marching into Washington assuming that he deserves to get everything he wants because of a popular vote. The Presidency is not and was never intended to be a popularity contest.

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