In a comment to Montag’s Electoral College vote I gave an imperfect defense of the institution based largely on sentimental reverence for a relic.

But there are better arguments than that for keeping it. Perhaps enough time has elapsed since 2000 that it’s worth a look at some of them, since election reform again seems to be in the air.

The first is the obvious one: Someday we actually might need that last defense against popular election of a dangerous demagogue. As hard as it is to imagine in this media-saturated age, it could happen. Some awful secret might transpire between election day and the meeting of the Electoral College that would change America’s mind about the candidate it had elected. There’d still be a last chance to hit “don’t send.”

Other arguments for keeping the electoral college reflect problems with direct popular election of presidents. It’s not necessarily an either-or situation (there are other ways to elect beside these two), but the problems are worth considering.

One is that direct election likely would lead to more, and more widespread, voter fraud. Think about it: The way things now stand, the GOP in, say, South Carolina only has to turn out enough Republican voters there every four years to outnumber the Democratic voters.

With nationwide direct elections, however, the South Carolina GOP would want to drain every single possible Republican vote into the polling places, because all the votes are going into one big pool. And in states where one party forms the majority, fraud by that party would be that much easier to accomplish, that much harder to prove.

The current system concentrates fraud in swing states (Florida, Ohio). A direct election would turn all 160,000 polling places in America into potential Broward Counties.

Doing away with the Electoral College, relic though it may be, would have consequences for the whole U.S. political system. It often is argued — and with good reason, I think — that the presence of the electoral college is what steered America into a two-party system. To win the presidency, you have to put a viable candidacy into every major state in a broad and diverse land. That forced regional and narrow interest groups to coalesce into national parties.

Do away with it, and you’ll likely see more Naders and Perots and Pat Buchanans in the mix, and see them gaining influence over the eventual winners. You’ll also likely see dozens or hundreds of candidates on the ballot at a time.

Pooling the vote also would leave much of America effectively disenfranchised. The Constitutional tug-of-war between big states and small states in 1787 was not about geography but about population: In a rural nation, the geographical size of a state usually was a measure of its population.

Since then, America has become intensely urbanized. Nowadays, under a direct popular vote, an America candidate could concen himself entirely with a few urban centers and ignore the vast rural heartland. The concentration of blue votes in such urban centers may be a clue to why dumping the Electoral College is an idea more popular with Democrats than Republicans. But the last time a candidate managed to game the system, and win the White House by ignoring half the country, was 1860. The results of that are a sufficient warning to the wise.

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  • jimbo

    I agree with you. Add though that 2 reforms are needed. First is to end gerrymandering, which has other deleterious consequences for our democracy. Best way to do that is to have computers and only computers draw district lines. Then give the presidential candidate one vote for each congressional district he or she carries. Two votes would be awarded for each state the candidate carries. In this way the temptation to cheat would be confined to a relative few very close districts. Giving two votes to a candidate for each state carried would force an appeal to the broader electorate.

  • Kris


    A few things:

    – Is it a bad thing that the GOP in South Carolina would want to get as many voters to the polls as possible? Encouraging voter participation seems like a good thing to me.

    – Electors have never acted as protectors of the electorate against a demagogue, and never will be in our two-party system. Electors are party die-hards who have no incentive at all to not vote for their party’s candidate.

    – I have a hard time seeing how direct elections would result in greater fraud. In fact, I’d say it’s easier now since it’s easier to organize a conspiracy with fewer people (i.e. state party officials) involved.

    – I’d hardly argue the electoral college has made candidates broaden their appeal beyond regional preferences. Look at the last two presidential election results. Blue up top, red down south. That hardly suggests national appeal for either candidate.

    – The two party system is here to stay as long as we elect the candidate with the most votes. Duverger’s Law much?

    – Disenfranchisement? That’s an argument FOR the electoral college?? As things currently are, voters in Wyoming have what amounts to SEVEN times as much voting power as voters in California. It’s big states that are disenfranchised in the electoral college. And of course, that’s where all the people are.

    – Would it really be horrible if every campaign focused on Houston, New York, Atlanta and Chicago media markets to get their message out? The issues that decide elections should be the issues that are the most important to the most people. Instead candidates can’t babble on enough about the virtues of Iowa ethanol. That’s not the kind of issue that should be determining our candidates or our elections. So yes, voters in rural areas would be more ignored. But the tradeoff is that a few million more people get heard.

    When it comes down to it, candidates should go to where the people are and everyone’s vote should count equally. The electoral college does neither of these things, and it no longer serves the purposes it was designed for in the first place.

  • jonathon

    A slightly more obscure argument for the electoral college was that its establishment sought to resolve the problem of having two ‘national’ offices when states, not the federal government, hold the power to conduct elections.

    Technically, state legislatures can decide not to have an election for electors at all, and instead appoint electors via the legislative process, or else assign the task to someone in the state executive branch.
    Under Article II of the Constitution, electors are appointed in each state “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.” Now while the mechanics of the electoral college’s ballot process for President and Vice-President were changed with the 12th Amendment, the basic method for choosing electors was not.

    One might even argue that state legislatures leaving the choice of electoral candidates to state party committees demonstrates a misfeasance on the legislatures’ part, namely a dereliction of their appointive duty. The way in which state legislatures avoid this critique is by formally throwing the appointive power to popular election. However, in 48 states voters choose party-appointed electoral slates rather than individual electors, and as a result voters often have no idea who is actually casting their lot for President and Vice-President. (Texas is exceptional in that the Secretary of State publishes the names and addresses of every elector candidate, regardless of party, who volunteers contact information.) Thus one might argue that the electoral college has never been allowed to operate properly– that elector campaigns should outweigh presidential campaigns, if state legislatures deem popular elections expedient. Otherwise, the choice of electors would be entirely in the hands of state legislatures.

  • Callimachus

    The debate over how to choose the chief executive was one of the longest in the Constitutional Convention. It was vigorously and almost continuously debated from July 17 to July 26. The current solution wasn’t hit upon until September.

    You get the feeling the founders were groping for an answer on this one; they had their eyes on issues which seemed essential at the time but which don’t figure in the calculation today: whether Spain would bribe Congress, for instance.

    But the big picture emerged quickly, and the essential lines were clear. There were three possible powers that could choose the president (the judiciary was quickly eliminated as a candidate): the people, the states, or the Congress.

    There were objections to all three. For instance, the danger of letting Congress choose, and thus control, the president was forcefully stated. Wilson of Pennsylvania warned that it would lead to legislative tyranny.

    Some delegates, notably Gouverneur Morris (and most of the Pennsylvanians) and Madison himself were for direct election by qualified voters (which was not a truly popular election; most states had property qualifications).

    But Roger Sherman, Charles Pinckney and others argued that the people should not elect the chief executive directly. They said the people would not be well-informed enough and would “be led by a few active & designing men.” The two-party system was not foreseen yet (one of the objections to direct election was that no one would get a majority vote), but it’s hard to avoid admitting that there was some truth in Pinckney’s fears.

    Various compromises were kicked around over the next few days, but none emerged as a clear favorite. The option of giving the states the job of picking the president fell afoul of large state-small state jealousies, and the delegates turned back to Congress as the body to choose the president, and this actually was approved (a seven-year term with no re-election) on July 26.

    Late in August the matter was brought up again, and it became clear there was no clear concensus for a method of electing the president, and serious objections existed to all the main proposals. The matter went to the committee appointed on Aug. 31 (with one member from each state) to resolve all the unsettled questions.

    There Pierce Butler came up with the current compromise, which satisfied almost everyone. Hamilton in the “Federalist” breezed over the Electoral College, noting that even the opponents of the Constitution had raised no serious objection to it.

    The genius of the compromise was to have the electors appointed in such manner as the state legislators should direct. Effectively punting it back to the states, they did not enshrine popular vote, which eased the fears of those who had an eye on the mob, but nor did they block it. The electors were to meet in their own states, to remove the possibility of intrigue on a national level, and they were to vote for two candidates, one of whom must be a resident of another state.