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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Short Primer on the Electoral College

Just prior to the 2004 presidential election, I gave a short explanation on the Electoral College. It was true then, and it's true today. With a few slight edits, I wrote:

Frustrated with the outcome of the last presidential election, especially since Al Gore won the popular vote, some in our country have cast a wary eye at the method by which we choose our president. Murmurings against the Electoral College began even before George W. Bush was sworn in and they have picked up recently as we approach the 2004 presidential election. Significant members of Congress have even suggested abolishing the electoral college. Like-minded editorialists and media elites have joined in the fray.

Upon being elected to the U.S. Senate, Hillary Clinton promised to introduce in the Senate a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. [I never accused her of failing to plan ahead!] The movement was supported by other like-minded Senators from both parties: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senators John Warner and Arlen Spector. There was also support in the House of Representatives, from Republicans Ray Lahood and Jim Leach and Democrats Robert Wise, Dick Gephardt, Rick Boucher, Virgil Goode, and Robert Underwood. Most of those calling for a change offer no real alternatives other than allowing the popular vote to determine the winner.

Within the last few weeks editorialists from The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also called for the abolition of the electoral college. The New York Times called it “a ridiculous setup, which thwarts the will of the majority.” They added, “There should be a bipartisan movement for direct election of the president.”

What were our Founders thinking and why shouldn’t we have a direct election of the President? According to historian David Barton, “During the Constitutional Convention, three proposals were originally discussed by the framers on how the president could be elected. Interestingly, those three proposals were rejected.” The first proposal called for Congress to elect the president, the second proposal allowed for the state legislators to do so, and the third proposal was to have the president chosen by national popular vote (direct election).

According to Barton, the national popular vote method was rejected “not because the framers distrusted the people but rather because the larger populous States would have much greater influence than the smaller States and therefore the interests of those smaller States could be disregarded or trampled. Additionally, a nationwide election would encourage regionalism since the more populous areas of the country could form coalitions to elect president after president from their own region. With such regional preferentialism, lasting national unity would be nearly impossible.”

The framers, then, referred the issue of the selection of a president to a “Committee of Eleven” for further investigation. The Electoral College was the result of this investigation.

Barton adds that, “The electoral college synthesized two important philosophies established in the Constitution: (1) the maintenance of a republican, as opposed to a democratic, form of government and (2) the balancing of power between the smaller and the larger States and between the various diverse regions of the nation.”

The Legislative branch of our government, with its House and Senate, also reflects this balance desired by our Founders. Representation in the House is proportional to a state’s population, but representation in the Senate is the same for all states no matter their population. Consequently, Alaska, the third least populous state, has only a single vote in the House, where California, the most populous state, has 53. Therefore Alaska, a very important state in our union (with all of its natural resources), has almost no power in the House to affect legislation. However, it has equal power in the Senate and there must be significant agreement or compromise for legislation to become law.

Using the Electoral College system to determine the head of the Executive branch of our government maintains the same kind of balance reflected in the Legislative branch.

The will of the people is taken into account, but the will of the states is also.

People frustrated with the outcome of the last [2000] presidential election point only to the majority of the vote, which Gore won by ½ of 1%. They ignore the fact that Bush won 30 states (60%), to Gore’s 20; or that Bush won 2436 counties (78%) compared to 676 for Gore; and by my count, Bush won 225 congressional districts (51.7%) to Gore’s 210. So, while a very slight majority of the people chose Gore, a much more significant majority of states and regions chose Bush. The result, therefore, was a slight electoral victory for Bush.

In support of the Electoral College, John Taylor (an officer during the American Revolution and a U. S. Senator under Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) wisely put it this way:

“Two principles sustain our Constitution: one a majority of the people, the other a majority of the States; the first was necessary to preserve the liberty or sovereignty of the people; the last, to preserve the liberty or sovereignty of the States. But both are founded in the principle of majority; and the effort of the Constitution is to preserve this principle in relation both to the people and the States, so that neither species of sovereignty or independence should be able to destroy the other.”
Like George Bush, Donald Trump won 30 states to Hillary Clinton's 20. With final results still to come in (or simple be counted--see the 2016 U.S. presidential election map by county below), I believe it's safe to say that Trump won more counties and congressional districts than Bush (thus a more comfortable electoral win). In other words, in spite of Hillary perhaps having a larger popular vote win that Gore, her electoral performance was much worse, and that is what matters in our constitutional republic.

The counties won by Donald Trump make the U.S. a sea of red. 

Copyright 2016, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor is the author of the brand new book The Miracle and Magnificence of America

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