Why Do We Have an Electoral College?

Conservative media outlets– including many who were vehemently anti-Trump prior to his election– have been flooding the blogosphere with an intolerable number of poorly reasoned explanations for why it doesn’t matter that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly two million votes. This post from RedState, the most popular on their site today, is representative. Their argument is simple: we have an electoral college to protect rural regions from the tyranny of heavily populated areas. The Founders knew that smug, liberal elitists in New York City and California would one day try to overrun the fine, upstanding people of the then completely unpopulated (with white people) midwest. This answer is, not surprisingly, ahistorical crap. We have the Electoral College for two main reasons: 1) the Founders didn’t trust democracy and 2) small state economic issues (tariffs for one, but mostly slaves).

The Founders intended the Electoral College to act as a barrier to populist politicians, not simply majority votes. It is true that they expected the electors to act as a safeguard against what de Tocqueville called the “tyranny of the majority,” but this doesn’t mean what writers like Andrea Ruth think it does. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist paper #68, the creation of something like the Electoral College is to make certain “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” By Hamilton’s logic, each elector existed to ensure that the president is chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” In other words, Hamilton wanted a cadre of well-educated, critical thinkers of the upper class to judiciously weigh the voice of the people with the qualifications of the candidates and to vote for the most qualified man. The Electoral College exists as an anti-democratic safeguard against an unqualified candidate who is popular with the people because of demagoguery rather than substance. Basically, the Founders wanted a non-democratic electoral process to prevent something like Donald J. Trump as President from ever happening.

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Why are the people who have such an active fetish regarding the Founders that they like to LARP them so ignorant of what they said and did?

As galling as this narrative is to me as a historian, there is a second, more insidious falsehood here. That is the idea that the Electoral College was meant as a contextless protection for small town and rural people against the tyranny of big cities. It is important to remember just what most of the small states during the colonial period and the early republic meant when they expressed concern with majority rule. Equity to the small town farmer or tradesman was not the goal of the New Jersey Plan or the Connecticut compromise that followed. Power for the elites of these less populous states was. And this issue was most prominent in the case of slavery.

Part of the discussion on representation– and thus electoral power in presidential elections– was focused on how slaves would count towards this total. Far from seeking fair representation and protection of the common man from the control of elites, the Constitution allowed southern states to count their slaves– non-citizens and property– as 3/5 a citizen for the purpose of determining how many congressmen (and electors) they would get. In practice, this meant that slaves contributed to the representation that ensured they stayed legally in bondage. Their representation helped passed such charming laws as the Fugitive Slave Act. The people of the south repeated this process after Reconstruction. Indeed, now they got full representation from their black “citizens” but refused most of them the right to actually vote. Until the late 1960s. This is not ancient history, folks. Nor was our Constitution a fully well-reasoned, venerable document committed to the ideals of some beautiful “Federalist” system that gave most power to the states out of a contextless fear of government. Nor was it meant to forever protect rural folk from the smug hipsters of Portlandia. It was in part, in the case of representation, a defense of wealthy slave owners and their “right” to own black people.

So there you have it. The Electoral College was born of an unholy compromise that largely benefited slave owners and was meant as an elitist safeguard to protect elections from hucksters and charlatans who could easily trick the common voter. Now stop sharing these poorly thought out articles and memes, please.

3 thoughts on “Why Do We Have an Electoral College?

  1. Support for a national popular vote is strong in rural states

    None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states, and they are ignored. Their states’ votes were conceded months before by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

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  2. Given the historical fact that 95% of the U.S. population in 1790 lived in places of less than 2,500 people, it is unlikely that the Founding Fathers were concerned about presidential candidates campaigning and winning only in big cities.

    With National Popular Vote, every voter would be equal and matter to the candidates. Candidates would reallocate their time, the money they raise, their polling, organizing efforts, and their ad buys to no longer ignore 38+ states and voters.

    Big cities are not as big or as Democratic as some think. And in the real-world, of all other political campaigns in the country, successful candidates do not ignore 80% of their voters.
    Candidates for governor and other offices in elections in which every vote is equal, and the winner is the candidate who receives the most popular votes, campaign wherever there are voters.

    In a successful nationwide election for President candidates could not afford campaigning only in metropolitan areas, while ignoring rural areas.

    With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.

    The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States.

    Voters in the biggest cities are almost exactly balanced out by rural areas in terms of population and partisan composition.

    16% of the U.S. population lives outside the nation’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Rural America has voted 60% Republican. None of the 10 most rural states matter now.

    16% of the U.S. population lives in the top 100 cities. They voted 63% Democratic in 2004.
    The population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States.

    Suburbs divide almost exactly equally between Republicans and Democrats.

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  3. , The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency in 2020 to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in the country

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