Why Do We Need the Electoral College?
Pop Quiz: Who elects the President of the United States? If you answered ‘the people,’ the voters’ or something similar, go to the back of the class! Our Constitution, (Article II, Section 1 and also in the 12th Amendment) specifies that the President is chosen by the Electoral College, which is composed of members from each state (plus washington, D.C.) equal to the combined number of Senators and Representatives that each state has, respectively, in Congress. (D.C. gets their quota based on calculations made as if they were a state.) The Electoral College is often ignored and when it is noticed, it is usually attacked as a relic of earlier times that we no longer need. The system set up by the Constitution thus does not allow for the popular election of the President (and Vice-President, too).
The National Popular Vote initiative would change the way the Electoral College works. The intent is to side-step the amendment process outlined in the Constitution by having each state pledge its’ electors to the winner of the national popular vote. What could be wrong with that? What is wrong with this idea, promoted by both Republicans and Democrats (enough by itself to be cause for worry) is that it clearly is intended to avoid amending the Constitution, which is how such a change ought to be made, if made at all, and it is also un-democratic. Imagine that you live in Michigan. The Big Mitten (sorry, Wisconsin, you aren’t the Mitten State) usually votes Democratic in presidential elections; you vote Democrat, as do a majority of your fellow Michiganders, yet your state’s Electoral College votes go to the Republican, if that candidate leads in the national popular vote. It effectively nullifies your vote, as your state’s electors would be pledged to a candidate (a ticket, actually) that a majority did not vote for.
This sneak-attack on the Constitution may be well-intentioned, but it is bad politics, and bad governance, too. Nothing happens in our system because on one majority saying so. That’s why we have a bicameral Congress, as do 49 of the 50 states (Nebraska being the exception). It’s why the President has veto power. it’s why the Supreme Court exercises judicial review on laws passed by Congress and signed (or allowed to become law without a signature) by the President. It’s why several states have the ‘referendum’ built into their Constitutions. It’s why we have dual sovereignty; states and the federal government check and balance each other (states have, or had, at least, the power to nullify federal laws that they deemed to be onerous, obnoxious or un-Constitutional). It’s also why we have a tradition, stretching back beyond Magna Charta, of ‘jury nullification,’ wherein juries may rule on both the facts of a case and the law itself, as famously was the case with John Peter Zenger and with many juries hearing cases brought under the Fugitive Slave Law; any law that could not muster the support of 12 jurors, randomly chosen from the community, was unenforceable, and thus no law at all. in other words, this plan, aside from its’ other demerits, violates the principle that one majority vote is not enough to decide the matter. (Much thanks to The American Conservative for carrying a story in the December, 2011 edition that alerted me to the progress of this bad idea, now halfway to it’s goal.)
Political thinkers from Lysander Spooner to the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan (cited by The American Conservative article mentioned above) have understood that the principle of only granting power to that which has been assented to by more than one majority is a core of the American system of government. To trifle with it is dangerous; to do so in an underhanded manner that seeks to accomplish its’ goal by bypassing the Constitution and staying off the radar of public discourse flirts with being evil. Finally, if one other argument need be made against meddling with the Electoral College, it is that the electors are not bound to support the candidate to whom they are pledged. (One of President Nixon’s electors voted for Libertarian candidate John Hospers in 1972, for example.) While this would also apply to the new system, the intent of the scheme’s backers lead one to believe that they intend to select pliant Electors who will conform to their new vision.
The Electoral College, as currently constituted, with electors pledged, but not bound to support the candidate who carries their state, provides us with two things that this new system would put in grave jeopardy: The ability of conscience to intervene and perhaps save us from electing a demagouge, and a system that allows small states a say in choosing the President and Vice-President. Without an Electoral College that magnifies the power of smaller, rural states, there would be little reason for any Presidential candidate to visit Ames, Iowa, Nasau, New Hampshire, or similar locales to listen to the concerns of people there, as they would lack the concentration of votes necessary for victory under a system of de facto direct democracy. And as we know from history, democracies are the worst form of government, lasting only a few generations before spending themselves into bankruptcy and giving way to tyranny, as was the case with Athens and many others after her.