The Electoral College: Rescuing America from Disaster

Fall 2009
Considering Another Side Essays

Article 7 of 12

Our Founding Fathers established the Electoral College as a system that protects our country and acts in its best interest. Before the crisis of the 2000 Presidential election, the Electoral College debate was on the backburners for many years, however new prominence has been delegated to the issue in recent years and alarming concerns have been brought to the forefront. To some, the election served as evidence in their case for the system’s abolishment, feeling it is archaic and outdated. Radicals such as Illinois Senator, Richard J. Durbin, who is sponsoring a Constitutional amendment for direct election of the president, call the Electoral College an “antiquated institution that has outlived its purpose”. Extremists have called the Electoral College “dangerous”, “anachronistic”, and even “anti-democratic” (Jost and Giroux). But to a number of others, the results of the 2000 election specifically demonstrated why the Electoral College was created, and exactly how it still serves its intended purpose. Although the Electoral College, as many will admit, has some flaws, its existence is essential to maintaining and operating our country’s fundamental belief in democracy. The Electoral College must be sustained because it forces candidates to campaign broadly throughout the country, it promotes the strength of a two party system, and because it increases voter turnout rate. Because concerns about the system’s relevance surfaced after the controversial results of the Presidential elections of 2000, many misconceptions about the Electoral College began to spread. However, in order to accurately judge the system’s relevance one must first examine its creation and history.

The Electoral College process originated as part of the design of the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers established it as a compromise between election of the President by Congress and election by popular vote (U.S. N.A.R.A.). In his report on the Electoral College, William C.Kimberling, deputy director of the Federal Election Committee office of Election Administration, explains that in order to appreciate the reasons behind the Electoral College’s creation, we must first understand its historical context and the problem that the Founding Fathers were trying to solve. At the time, America consisted of only thirteen small and large states that were all jealous of each other’s power and suspicious of any central government. Therefore, the concern was that each state would vote for the candidate from their prospective state. Evidently, the Founding Fathers were trying to create a system that would elect a president without political parties, without national campaigns, and without upsetting the carefully designed balance between the Presidency and the Congress on one hand and between the states and the federal government on the other (Kimberling). Kimberling explains the fundamental establishment of the Electoral College as few states interested in protecting their own interests. Naysayers would cast this as an explanation for the system’s outdated ways. However, upon closer examination, one would understand that these issues are still going on today. If the Electoral College is abolished, Presidential candidates would only focus their campaigns on the most populated states, and thus the most populated states would effectively elect the President of only their choice. By forcing Candidates to campaign broadly throughout the country, the Electoral College ensures that the president has wide-ranging support.

Moreover, the Electoral College promotes the strength of a two party system, a system that upholds the political stability of our country. Indeed, it is extremely difficult for a third party to win sufficient popular votes in enough states to have a chance of winning the Presidency. Even if a third party candidate won enough electoral votes to force the decision into the U.S. House of Representatives, this candidate would still need over half the State delegations in order to be elected (Kimberling).This relates to the Electoral College’s positive contribution in close elections, because it prevents the need to recount votes in every state. Phyllis Schlafly, a constitutional attorney and author of bestselling book, A Choice, Not an Echo, explains that the Electoral College promotes political stability, by referring to the Presidential elections of 2000; “Whereas other countries handle their succession of chief executives by revolution or angry mobs, the only street ruckus during our present dilemma has been a little pushing and shoving by Jesse Jackson’s friends.” (Shlafly). If Presidential elections were solely based on the popular vote, as it is in a number of other countries, it would often lead to problems. However, as Schlafly explains, because of the system’s checks and balances that the Electoral keeps in place, the President is elected by a combination of several different votes. 

The principle behind the Electoral College is similar to the principle that determines the composition of the Senate, wherein every state is deemed equal, no matter its size (IDEA). Essentially, the size of a state does not determine the state’s value. If the Electoral College were abolished, Presidential candidates would only campaign in the few states that have the highest population. Political scientists James Ceasar and Andrew Busch analyze Al Gore’s principle mistake in the 2000 elections in their book, The Perfect Tie, arguing:

Perhaps the most fundamental bias of the Electoral College is this: it is not sufficient to win in a few big states by huge margins. Since almost all states gives their votes in a winner-takes-all basis, the system works in favor of candidates who win in a lot of places, even by modest margins. This bias cost Gore the presidency. Gore trailed in the popular vote from coast to coast until returns came in from California, where he pulled ahead… by a 1.3 million vote margin. Gore lost the rest of America by nearly a million votes, only twenty of fifty states and about one-fifth of America’s counties, so that one could fly from Washington DC to San Francisco without ever crossing a Gore state before reaching California (Busch).

This illustration demonstrates yet another positive attribute of the Electoral College, and it suggests that the 2000 election was neither fraudulent nor corrupt. Abolishing the Electoral College would put an unconstitutionally disproportionate weight on the certain states, while others would be ignored. The current system justly forces presidential candidates to campaign throughout the entire country, trying to gain the electoral votes of as many states as possible. In addition to guaranteeing each state’s equality, the Electoral College also makes certain that the president will have widespread support.

Americans today tend to believe that voters are being discouraged by the Electoral College’s actions in 2000; however, these statistics are misrepresented and misinterpreted. Dr. Michael McDonald, associate professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University and founder of the United States Elections Project, has spent years researching this issue. His research in voting behavior, and more specifically in voter turnout research, shows that turnout is not declining as many might suggest Rather, he argues, because of the ineligible population- referring to non-citizens and ineligible felons-the numbers are rising. McDonald’s calculations show that despite the belief that voters were discouraged after the elections of 2000, turnout rates actually rose from 54.2% in the 2000 election, to 60.1% in 2004 (McDonald). Supporters of popular election are under the misconception that this system would elect a president based on majority opinion. However, as political scientist, Aaron Wildavsky, explains, “Abolition of the Electoral College would create the appearance of direct mass election and the reality of indirect manipulation.” (Wildavsky). These finding have important consequences for the broader domain of the Electoral College because they illustrate the true consequences of a direct election, and show drastic rises in voter turnout.

Although critics may claim that the Electoral College is outdated and should be abolished, a number of surveys illustrate that political scientists have continue to support the continuation of the Electoral College (NARA). Those who dispute the Electoral College sight its historical curiosities of when the electoral vote has split with the popular vote, and the well-known “faithless elector”. The “faithless elector” is an elector who fails to vote for the candidate they were elected to vote for. Admittedly, this is a weakness in the system; however, the truth is that this rarely happens. The U.S. Election Assistance Committee reports that the 20th century has only seen eight instances of an elector not voting for the candidate to whom he or she was pledged. It happened in 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1988, and 2000. However, these votes have never affected the outcome of the election (U.S. Election Assistance Commission). In other words, these instances are very rare and when they do happen, their effect is miniscule. Additionally, since the ratification of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804, there have been few changes to the structure of the system. The U.S. EAC further explains why it is unlikely that more constitutional changes will be made to the Electoral College reasoning, “Since it bestows outsized voting strength on smaller states, it is unlikely that any   amendment to abolish the institution would receive enough votes in Congress. Even if an amendment could clear the hurdle in Congress, such a measure would have a tough time getting ratified by the required minimum of three-quarters, or 38, states.” (U.S. Election Assistance Commission). Evidently, it would be extremely difficult for the Electoral College to be changed, let alone be abolished because it gives smaller states equal significance and because 38 states would have to ratify it.     

In conclusion, the Electoral College is vital to the operation of American democracy. It encourages Presidential candidates to remain honest in their campaigns; it gives smaller states an equal voice; and it ensures that the candidate elected has broad ranging support. The findings of several leading researchers have shown that the Electoral College is serving its purpose and is even helping clarify close elections. Although the system may be imperfect, it has served America well for fifty-five elections. Therefore, it is important not to abolish the Electoral College, because our best interests, just as our Founding Fathers intended.

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