The Electoral College

By Sean Brown

This article is solely the opinion of the author and may not necessarily represent the official opinion of the LPPA or any of its affiliates.

“But the electoral college is undemocratic!” they say.

At the risk of sounding like I am parroting Steven Crowder… yes. Yes, indeed, it is.

The electoral college is reflective of a peculiar fact of how the United States was founded: it was meant to be a federalist democratic republic, not a direct democracy. There is an abundance of evidence that the Framers had no interest in promoting the popular vote. The only office for which a popular vote was explicitly required, constitutionally, was that of a Congressman. Direct elections for Senators were added by the 17th Amendment, but from 1787 to 1913, the US Congress was the only federal body which was required to be elected by the people directly.

The electoral college system never actually specifies that a popular vote is required for presidential elections; states chose to voluntarily conduct their presidential elections that way, as they could just as easily choose their electors via alternative means. They also did not all decide to hold popular votes at the same time; although most states had adopted a popular vote system by the early 1800s, there were some holdouts. South Carolina, the last state to begin holding a presidential popular vote, first did so in 1868. Furthermore, “faithless elector” laws vary state-by-state; some states have them, some states don’t. Most electors simply cast their ballots in the manner in which they are directed as a good-faith gesture, even though they are not legally required to in many cases.

Why is it that the importance of the popular vote at the national level was so deeply suppressed -- or at least, not in any way encouraged -- by the Framers?

It has to do with the Constitutional structure of the United States. One must keep in mind that the Constitution was designed to replace the Articles of Confederation, which had produced an insufficiently strong federal government to both keep the states together and adequately fulfill the fiscal obligations the Continental Congress had incurred in the course of fighting the Revolutionary War. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were often not of a particularly libertarian bent; some most certainly were, especially the “antifederalists” who pushed hard for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the document, but many of the delegates were simply prominent state officials. Governments are jealous of their power and do not enjoy seeing it usurped, state governments most certainly included. Although the delegates recognized that a stronger central government was necessary, they were naturally jealous of state power and did not want it to be usurped by the newly empowered federal government. They thus sought to minimize federal power not purely on the grounds of protecting individual liberty, but mostly on the grounds of ensuring that state power remained as relatively maximal as possible.

The federal government was designed as an instrument to unify, organize, and represent the interests of the state governments; the states could administer their populations effectively enough as it were, and no federal oversight of individual activities was viewed as necessary. This attitude can explain a great many things about the structure of the document, most particularly, for example, why the Commerce Clause exists to limit federal authority to interstate commerce and not simply all commerce, as if the purpose of the clause really was so broad (as many on both sides of the aisle often preposterously argue) as to permit all manner of business regulation at the federal level. It explains why the Constitution contained absolutely no provisions at its start regarding the governance of individuals; it explains why taxation always had to be derived either from tariffs or excises, and why no income tax (although the concept did exist at the time) was permitted. It explains why the President is elected indirectly via the electoral college, a system which, although often presented in a simplified manner as some kind of “proportional point system”, is really no point system at all, but rather a deliberate interference mechanism to suppress the popular vote. A presidential candidate has not truly won or lost the election until the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when the electors meet in person to cast their individual ballots -- whereas, if it were a mere point system, we would know with utter certainty who has won the moment all the popular votes were tabulated. It was not designed to “enhance the rural vote” or “prevent the big cities from running everything” -- it was designed to increase the influence of individual states upon the process, although more weight was of course given to the interests of larger states, as part of the very same Great Compromise which resulted in our bicameral legislature having one proportional chamber and one equal-representation chamber.

The Progressive Era wrought a great wave of “democratization” to America and thus succeeded in critically rewriting crucial sections of the Constitution to erode the influence of state governments upon the federal government and to give the federal government a more direct connection with the people, of precisely the sort the Framers wished to avoid. The people both more directly participate in the federal government, but they are also administered more directly by it as well. The 16th Amendment’s legalization of individual taxation destroyed the notion that states were anything more than political subdivisions of the federal government and grossly enlarged Washington’s pocketbook; the 17th Amendment’s alteration of the method of electing Senators merely drove this point home. And now we see further calls for increased democratization by pushing to dissolve the one last vestige of federalism that remains: the electoral college.

The problem with the electoral college debate is that people simply do not understand what they are actually arguing about. The right uses the tired and historically uninformed argument about it protecting the rural vote; the left uses the tired and historically ignorant argument about it being undemocratic, as if it were some kind of error or mistake on the part of the Framers instead of a very intentional and calculated system. Does the electoral college always succeed at promoting state interests? As evidenced by the Civil War, no -- but if we are to assert that the electoral college has failed, let’s at least be honest with ourselves, and discuss how it failed at that, not how it has “failed” at something of which it was literally designed to do the exact opposite.

Sean Brown is the Secretary of the Lancaster County Chapter and has served as the editor of the LPPA newsletter since April 2017.