Why the Electoral College?

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The
claustrophobically close 2000 Presidential election has revived
the dispute over the validity of the electoral college. Hillary
Clinton, Senator-elect from New York, has suggested that among her
first acts in her new office will be to propose legislation eliminating
the electoral college. Democrats, already firmly committed to the
one-person-one-vote notion (which the Constitution no where mentions),
are no doubt scandalized that the country still labors under a Constitution
which permits a win of the popular vote total and a loss of the
Presidency. To many Americans, this logic seems irrefutable – shouldn't
the guy (or gal) who gets the most votes in the nation win? Isn't
it un-American to suggest differently? The short answer is … no.
In fact, it is more likely un-American to abandon the electoral
college. When we understand the logic of the Framers in establishing
a system of electors, we will likely be less vulnerable to arguments
calling for the elimination of the electoral college.

The
Electoral College Creates a Consensus

When
the Constitution was drafted, America was still an almost entirely
rural society. There were no up-to-the-minute political news flashes,
inside-the-Beltway talking-head TV programs, or even daily newspaper
accounts of the latest national political goings-on. It was sometimes
weeks, or even months, before political news from other states arrived
in one's home state.

In
this atmosphere, the Founders were concerned that a popular regional
candidate in a populous area may be able to garner enough votes
to win the election, particularly if several other candidates divided
the balance of the vote. This regionally popular first candidate
would not likely have the interests of the entire number of states
– the nation itself – at heart. If a candidate needed to win only
the popular vote, it would possible for him to be elected President
without winning a majority of anything. He would not have
been elected on the basis of any sort of consensus of the states,
but simply on his popularity in a particular state or in two or
three heavily populated areas. Forcing a candidate to win a majority
of the states' electoral votes obliges a candidate to appeal to
the entire nation – or at least to a wider portion of the population
than simply a few densely populated cities or areas. It is not sufficient
for a candidate to be hugely popular in Philadelphia or New York
City, for example. He needs to make his case in other places in
order to garner the electors necessary to gain the Presidency.

Article
2 of the Constitution and its 12th Amendment stipulate
that the President is chosen by electors, who are themselves chosen
by the state, "in such manner as the legislature thereof may
direct … equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives
to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." A state
is allotted as many electors as it has representatives in both houses
of Congress. The Founders actually vested these electors with the
authority to choose the President of the United States. The states,
by means of the state legislature, choose the electors; and the
electors choose the President and Vice President. While candidates
must win the popular election of a state in order to get its electors,
the electoral college is a barrier against a national
popular election. Why? Because (except in Maine) the states have
a winner-take-all arrangement. All of the electors of a particular
state are awarded to the candidate who wins the popular vote of
that state. There is, therefore, proportional representation in
Presidential elections, but it is parceled out by the states,
not within the states (again, except in Maine). This means,
among other things, that the runner-up candidate in an election
often is much closer in the national popular election than he is
in the electoral college, and that in very close elections (as in
1876 and 2000) the runner-up may actually win the national
popular vote. But the electoral college means, more importantly,
that a candidate must win the election within states, and
not the greatest number of votes in the nation, in order to be elected.
This arrangement obliges candidates to make a much wider appeal
than they would if they simply were required to win the popular
national election.

The
Electoral College Protects States' Rights

The
electoral college is a bulwark of states' rights yet, perhaps paradoxically,
it also tends to foster the cohesiveness of the entire nation. It
makes it difficult for more populous urban states, or states with
larger populations, like New York, Florida, and California, to gain
an unfair advantage over less urban and populous states like North
Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. But neither does it give these less
populous states an unfair advantage over the more populous states.
The electoral college maintains a delicate equity by (a) allotting
the more populous states a greater number of electors, but (b) requiring
the electors chosen by the state actually to elect the President.
We call our nation the United States of America, and not the united
people of America, because it is a union of states, and not
merely of individuals. States directly elect Presidents; individuals
only indirectly elect Presidents. This protects the integrity of
the various states in that it vests them with the authority to choose
electors who will themselves choose the President. However, it also
fosters the cohesiveness of the entire nation, because it discourages
candidates from concentrating on a few dispersed but highly concentrated
urban areas.

The
2000 Presidential election was razor-close because, for the most
part, Vice President Al Gore won the electors of most of the highly
populous states and Governor George W. Bush won the electors of
the least populous states – which are the majority of the states.
Gore won most the big electoral states (which are few) and Bush
got a large number of the small electoral states. The closeness
of the election highlights the fairness of the system – the populous
states should each carry a heavier weight in the vote total, but
since the states themselves select a President, no individual state
can afford to be dismissed.

To
eliminate the electoral college would be essentially to eliminate
the role of states in presidential elections. It would comprehensively
nationalize the selection and insinuate that states as such have
no interest in national presidential politics. For all practical
purposes, it would remove the borders between states and transform
the United States of America into the united people of America.

While
it would be overreaching to describe the electoral college as explicitly
Biblical and Christian, it is surely not overreaching to suggest
that it conforms to a Biblical or Christian pattern. In Deuteronomy
1, for instance, Moses asks the children of Israel to select certain
wise and virtuous men whom he will appoint to rule over them. He
set in place a highly decentralized appellate system of civil justice
("captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and
captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among
your tribes," v. 15). These were locally selected civil
magistrates who governed locally. Any system of political
representation which decentralizes decision-making and increases
the authority of local control tends to conform to the Biblical
pattern. This is just what the electoral college does. It puts a
fair amount of selection of one's political leaders in local (or
at least regional) hands. It prevents a few densely populated local
areas from dominating a large part of the rest of the nation simply
by virtue of the fact that they have a greater number of people.

This
decentralization of political authority and a more widely dispersed
political participation in a nation conforms to the Biblical pattern.

December
13, 2000

P.
Andrew Sandlin is Executive Vice President of the Chalcedon
Foundation
which since 1965 has been dedicated to applying
historic, Biblical Christianity in today's world. He is the author
of Christianity: Bulwark of Liberty and several other works.

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