Musings on the Electoral College

Since last night I have been planning on writing a post regarding the Electoral College.  First, I should clarify that I am not writing this as a frustrated McCain voter or something; I’m well aware that Obama won both the popular vote and the projected Electoral College vote.  So this is not at all based on my feelings on the outcome of the election.  Instead, it is based on some conversations I’ve had with friends in recent weeks about what might happen should the popular vote once again be very close, particularly if the electoral count should also be very close (or tied).

However, I’ll admit that I’m not writing what I had generally been planning on writing. My thoughts lately have been that the Electoral College system is antiquated and needs to be done away with.  But, in order to be fair and accurate in my writing, I did some research before beginning to write.  I now have a renewed confidence in our Founding Fathers and the work they put into crafting our Constitution and the wonderful federation that we call the United States of America.

The Electoral College (which was not originally given that now-common name) was chosen to solve several problems, a few of which I will enumerate.

  1. Around 4 million people were spread sparsely throughout the eastern seaboard, and the communication methods of the day made it very difficult for a candidate to be truly known by all voters.
  2. Candidates did not run campaigns as we know them.
  3. The USA is a federation, under the concept of federalism; thus, the Framers were wary of anything that would risk a national mindset superseding that of the individual states.
  4. Also due to the small number of original states and their sparse populations and lack of communication, it was feared that each state’s voters would only vote for a local candidate; they feared, potentially, 13 different candidates each receiving a small portion of the popular vote, which would cause a useless outcome with no majority.
  5. Additionally, many voters did not feel that they were qualified or knowledgeable enough to effectively vote, so it was felt that it would be better to elect a small number of knowledgeable, trustworthy people to then gather and select a president.

These reasons all make much sense, but all of them except number 3 are now irrelevant, as we now have a very different population and population spread, and the candidate and campaign situations are entirely different.  So why shouldn’t we get rid of the Electoral College system and just go to a popular vote-based election?  Here are some common arguments for doing just that.

  1. If we’re electing the federal president, not a state representative, then why don’t we just use the popular vote tally?
  2. We no longer have a lack of communication nationwide.
  3. The two-party system, for better or for worse, has made it such that, in reality, only two candidates have a real shot of winning on election day, so there’s essentially no chance that each state’s voters will just vote for their state’s person and no majority will be reached.
  4. Because we are a more connected society than 200 years ago, where we frequently cross state lines for commerce and pleasure, state delineations seem to have less importance.

These were some of my own arguments.  I basically said, “The Electoral College made sense 200 years ago when communication and campaigns were very different, but there’s no reason we can’t directly elect our president.”

Nonetheless, after my research today, I was reminded of the place of federalism in all this.  We are taught far too little about federalism in school, so many are not familiar with what federalism is and why our Constitution is based on entirely on its precepts.

Everything in our government is set up as a balance between state and federal power.  The Congress is half based on states (Senate) and population (House).  Likewise, our presidential elections are also a combination: a popular vote in each state (rather than by county or city or such) determines the candidate for whom the proportionate number of electors is selected (based upon a combination of the number of seats in the House and the Senate and three in the case of the District of Columbia).

In the end, the Electoral College makes sense even today.  It’s not perfect; it’s government.  However, it’s the best compromise that will continue to allow our government to be most effectively selected.  By its citizens and its states, both of which are equally important.

For a much more thorough explanation of the Electoral College, read the excellent article I read through the Federal Election Commission website:

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  1. I really learned many new things from your post. It makes sense to keep the electoral college after reading your explanation.

    I was glad to see a current post! : ) I check in once in a while.

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