Let us state, flat out, that we are great fans of the Electoral College. It (the process of actually electing our President and Vice President) is, in our opinion, a hallmark of the genius of the framers of our Constitution.
We understand, of course, that, like any other provision of the Constitution, the provision establishing an Electoral College can be changed or abolished by amending the constitution. Indeed, our governing document has been amended 27 times in the past 235 years, including the twelfth amendment, which consolidated, within the College, the voting for President and Vice President into one ballot to avoid a reoccurrence of contests between President and Vice President. There is, however, a movement spreading through the country to gut the Electoral College by stealth. It is called the National Popular Vote Compact, and it should be condemned for what it is — an attempt to emasculate the intent of the framers without going through the bother of an arduous amendment process. It is a terrible idea.
We’ll explain why just a bit further down in this essay, but first let’s review precisely what the Electoral College is…and what it isn’t. The Electoral College is not a physical place like a school. It is simply a group of elected individuals in each state organized by the constitution to achieve a singular common goal – to express (by casting their ballots) the will of their respective states. The number of each state’s electors (in the Electoral College) is equal to the number of representatives and senators each state has in the US Congress. Thus, every state is represented in the nation’s Electoral College process in a manner reasonably proportionate to its population. That is what makes every electoral vote so important, especially, in close elections. It is also a cornerstone of our federalist system. It makes it impossible for one or two very populous geographical regions to totally control a presidential election. Every state has someone at the table in the Electoral College system (okay, there really isn’t a table).
So why are some people so opposed to the Electoral College process? Primarily, because (at first blush) a system whereby whoever gets the most popular votes wins, seems very fair and very appealing.
So what’s wrong with that? Well, for one thing, it could pit heavily populated regions of the country against less populated regions assuring that the big population centers could, essentially, dictate who occupies the White House. That is, to some extent, as true today as it was at the founding when the United States of America consisted of only four million men and women in 13 states spread along 1,000 miles of the east coast with the bulk of the population residing in four states — Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Even today, with a population of 320 million, 52% of Americans live in coastal counties and 40% live directly on the shoreline of the United States. That means about half the country lives in the immense 3,000-mile divide between the coasts. Of the nation’s 3,066 counties, only 22% (672) are coastal with the remaining 78% located inland. Our federalist system was created to assure that every state was, politically, important
But wait. There’s more! The Electoral College makes it very difficult for fringe party candidates to win a national election by cobbling together pockets of votes in many states that could add up to a majority without carrying any single state. The way our Electoral College works, if a candidate doesn’t carry a state, he or she isn’t entitled to any of that state’s electoral votes. We like that a lot!
While the founders changed history by meticulously constructing the world’s first truly constitutional democracy, they never lost sight or fear of the potential tyranny of the majority. They constructed a number of safeguards to give every state, large or small, a place at the proverbial table. Every state, large or small, having two Senators is one such example. The Electoral College is another.
Twice in fairly recent history, fringe candidates were able to accumulate an impressive number of votes (here and there) without carrying a single state. Consequently, they got no electoral votes. For example, Ross Perot, in 1992, ran as a third party candidate and cobbled together nearly 20 million votes, but he failed to carry a single state and, therefore, was awarded no electoral votes. John Anderson of Illinois ran for President as an Independent in 1980 and won nearly 7 million votes. He, too, failed to carry a single state and was relegated to obscurity, winning no votes in the Electoral College.
The Electoral College has stood the test of time, and has served the nation well. Let us, however, acknowledge that the Electoral College represents an imperfect process that has, on three occasions following very close elections, resulted in the inauguration of Presidents who had not won a national majority of the votes cast. They would be George Bush (43), Benjamin Harrison and Rutherford Hayes. John Quincy Adams also won the presidency when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives after neither he nor Andrew Jackson received the necessary number of electoral votes to ascend to the Presidency. The House gave the nod to Adams.
Nonetheless, the correlation between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote remains extremely strong. Three interesting research papers co-authored by Andrew Gelman, Professor of Statistics at Columbia University, along with other prominent statisticians, demonstrate that whoever wins 51% of the popular vote has a 95% statistical probability of winning the Electoral College.
Both large states and small states can, depending on the circumstances, be the beneficiaries of the Electoral College system. That’s because every state contributes a minimum of three electors to the Electoral College (one for each of the two Senators and one for each Representative it sends to Congress, which, of course, favors small states. In a close election, there are many small states whose three electoral votes could carry the day for a candidate.
On the other hand, the prevailing winner-take-all (electoral votes) system, of course, favors the large states. For example, no matter how small the margin of victory in California, the state awards all 55 of its electoral votes to the winner. That represents more electoral votes than the 15 smallest states combined. The Electoral College can provide (in very close elections) an ever-so-slight tilt making the outcome in an individual state critically important, and the federalist oriented founders would, unquestionably, have been very comfortable with that. We are too.
In our unique presidential voting system the majority of votes in the Electoral College rather than the majority of the popular vote determines who will be President, and rarely has there been a disparity between the two. The American Electoral College system does, however, help assure that large voting blocks do not necessarily dictate the outcome of our Presidential elections and that is what the founders intended and, in our opinion, that is a good thing.
If ever the national will is to amend the constitution and do away with the Electoral College so be it. But there are those who want to do away with the Electoral College and who have devised an alternate scheme for savaging the founders’ intent by circumventing the amendment process. Here’s how. The US Constitution allows each state to decide how to apportion its electoral votes. In 48 of the 50 states all of the electoral votes in each state are awarded to the winner of the popular vote in each particular state (winner takes all). Two states, Nebraska (5 electoral votes) and Maine (4 electoral votes) allocate their votes taking into consideration how the vote went in each state’s respective congressional districts.
The so-called National Popular Vote Compact movement would establish a Compact wherein every state that adopts the Compact agrees to allocate all of their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote, even if that candidate did not carry the particular member state. In other words, if a candidate who won the national popular vote got clobbered in any states that had joined the Compact, those states would still be compelled to award all of their electoral votes to that candidate.
Ironically, those who are pushing this corruption of the Constitution will succeed if they can secure the passage of the Compact in any combination of states that, collectively, have 270 electoral votes (the number of electoral votes needed to win a national Presidential election). Those who are promoting the so-called Compact are using the language in the constitution that delegates to the states the determination of how to apportion their electoral votes to make the case that the electors can be required to cast their votes in support of a candidate that didn’t even carry their state. This political slight of hand totally negates and undermines the process of election designated by the Constitution. The Constitution most certainly intended that electoral votes cast in each state reflect the vote outcome in each state.
How far fetched is it that such a bastardization of the framers’ intent could ever become reality? Not as far fetched as you might think. As of this week, eleven of the most liberal states in the nation have legislated in favor of the Compact. Together they account for 165 of the needed 270 votes necessary to do away with the framers’ intent. Legislation supporting the Compact is pending in six other states.
To the framers, in their eternal slumber, it must seem a growing nightmare.
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