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Why the Electoral College?

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.