October 10, 2012

The Electoral College

Election Day is just four weeks away, Nov 6. I've no doubt as we get closer we'll hear the usual discussions about past election results, the pros and cons of a national popular vote vs. the electoral college, the history of voting irregularities and odd outcomes in the U.S., etc. To add my two cents worth, I'd like to take a moment to address the Electoral College issue and provide some useful links to solid references on the subject (at least I think they're 'useful' and 'solid').  

Criticism of the Electoral College process generally focuses on the fact that a Presidential nominee can win the popular vote but still lose the election by not garnering sufficient Electoral College votes as has happened three times in U.S. history. (In the 1876, 1888, and 2000 elections the popular vote winner lost the Electoral College vote. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won more popular and electoral votes than John Q Adams but because he didn't win a majority of either vote (more importantly, a majority of the electoral vote), the outcome of the election was decided by the House of Representatives who elected Adams.)

Interestingly, there have been 18 instances in our history when the winning nominee won a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote, i.e. he won more votes than the next closest nominee but did not exceed fifty percent of the popular vote. This is of interest because it means that more people voted  for someone other than the man who won. 

For an excellent overview of the pros and cons of the Electoral College, see Tara Ross's article published on the Heritage Foundation website entitled The Electoral College: Enlightened Democracy. A summarized version is here. Additional concise explanations of the Electoral College can be found at the FEC, National Archives (with a good 3-minute video), and Wikipedia websites. 

At its core, the Electoral College approach to electing our President (and VP) reflects the 'republic' form of democracy codified in our Constitution. The structure of our country was founded upon the organizing principle that the United States of America was to be a federation of autonomous states that ceded some authorities to a central government (see discussion of the 10th Amendment here). Various compromises were made to address a wide range of concerns among the Constitutional Convention delegates and the various state populations who would ultimately vote on the proposed document, concerns that included protecting the interests of small, less populous states from those of the larger and more populous states and the interests of minority populations or factions from the absolute domination of majorities. 

James Madison discussed the problem of 'factions' in Federalist 10 while Alexander Hamilton  applied Madison's reasoning in Federalist 68 wherein he (Hamilton) discussed the merits of an elector-based system for choosing the chief executive officer under the new Constitution (an approach later codified in the 12th Amendment).

Effectively, the U.S. elects a President and Vice President via the aggregated results of 51 independent elections (the 50 states and Wash, DC) that are themselves based on the popular vote in each state and the District. This system was deemed preferable in that it ensured smaller, less popular states could compete in some way with the larger states, rural areas could compete with urban centers, and instances of fraud would be largely isolated and highly unlikely to spread nationally. It preserves the federated nature of the United States and prevents a majority of any type - ethnic, religious, economic, etc. - from so dominating the political landscape that any other group is effectively disenfranchised. 

Though it can be confusing and certainly frustrating (as was seen most recently in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore), I continue to believe that our current process is far better than any other yet devised.

Update: Since posting this I realized I didn't include one other item for consideration, that being the matter(s) of identity or perspective as it pertains to American citizens. I think that over time our identity has shifted from that of a state-centered one to one that is largely national-centered. In times past an American more closely identified with his/her state: I'm a proud Texan,Virginian, New Yorker, etc. As our country more firmly established itself as a 'country' and as technology (especially in transportation and information-sharing) and our economy shifted to create a more mobile society, people more easily lost their once-firmly-fixed roots in a specific locality and adopted a broader perspective of 'America.' I realize my view is presented here as an assertion but if accurate, perhaps it explains much of the criticism of the Electoral College process in favor of a popular vote -- people are more apt to believe in the individual-centered framework of a popular vote election process where 'Americans' collectively  and directly vote for the President rather than naturally inclining themselves to prefer a state-centered vote. Are we a nation of individual citizens who happen to live in locations arbitrarily defined as 'states' or is our country as federation of states operating in a national framework overseen by a federal government? 


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  2. Great article and excellent analysis of the Electoral College. You make good points with regard to our shifting economy and a more mobile society. Will this election highlight the need for change? We shall see.

    Glad we found your blog, have added it to our 'News' favorites. Keep up the good work.

    Cate Benz

  3. Many thanks for the encouraging remarks! Glad you found the post...and found it of interest. Have been absent from it for a bit...lots of things going on at the moment but will return in the next day or two. Looking forward to discovering your work!