When the Constitutional Convention gathered in 1784 they had the difficult task of determining how our government should be assembled and what systems we should use to elect them. They quickly decided congress should have the powers to pass laws and the people should elect these people to ensure they are following the will of the people. But who should elect the president?
Congress was the initial choice of most of the framers, but then they realized they first dilemma; by having congress elect the president, he would be loyal only to congress and not the people. The second and most logically thought was to have the people elect the president. However, this too was a problem in the eyes of most of the framers. They felt that people were prone to being rash and emotional and therefore could not be trusted to make a wise decision. So then congress settled on the final choice, which was to be a compromise between the smaller and larger states, which would ensure that the president would be fairly and wisely selected and that smaller states would have the same power as larger states. This system is called the Electoral College.
In the Electoral College, each state is granted one vote for every representative and one for every senator, thus ensuring that each state would be equally represented when electing the president.
However, the same question arises every four years, are the ideals that were used to create the Electoral College system over 200 years ago still applicable today or have that outlived their intended purposes? In order to answer that we must first explore the purposes for setting up the Electoral College and then determine how relevant it is to today.
The first purpose for setting up the Electoral College was to ensure that congress did not have too much power. When the system of government was finally decided on, our founding fathers understood the importance of the balance of power within the three branches of the government. They called this system checks and balances. This system was set up to ensure that the government would remain loyal to the people and loyal to their states (Hamilton). In The Federalist Papers, No. 68, Alexander Hamilton discusses the importance of having the president elected by the Electoral College. He said that in order to ensure that we do not end up with the same problems that America had with the monarch of England, it was important that the balance of power was spread throughout the government and that no one portion have too much power.
Another reason Alexander Hamilton gave for not having congress elect the president was that the founders wanted to reassure states that they had not given up all their power to a federal government. In order to ratify the constitution, the framers knew that it would have to be approved in each of the thirteen states. They also knew that these states would be skeptical of a powerful central government that would have the ability to take away all their rights. So, they would have to make sure that each of these states was comfortable with the amount of power given to each branch of the central government.
This point is also clearly evident today. During the election this year, the Republican Party ran on a platform that included the premise of a smaller government. This platform was in line with an MSNBC poll that was taken in July 2000, which asked this question, “Do you think it is important to limit the size of the federal government?” Over 72 percent of the 4,143 people surveyed said they believed that it is important to limit the size of the government. So even in the age of government programs which help support the citizens of this nation, people still understand the importance of keeping our government small.
The second purpose for the Electoral College was to give smaller states the same rights and powers as the larger states. There are two primary reasons why the smaller states have the same, if not more, power than the larger states when it comes to electing the president. The first is, a presidential candidate must receive 270 Electoral votes in order to win the presidency (Law). To do so that means that he would need to receive Electoral votes from a wide range of states and cannot limit himself to a certain region of the country. This means that some of the smaller states will receive the attention of presidential candidates.
The second reasons smaller states have the same, or more power, as larger states is in how the Electoral votes are distributed (Law). If you take a state such as Alaska, with a population of 619,500, which has three Electoral votes, this means that they have one vote for every 206,500 in population. Compared to California, which has a population of 33,145,121, and 54 Electoral votes. That works out to be one Electoral vote for every 613,799 in population. That means that someone who votes in the state of Alaska has three times the voting power of someone who votes in California. This is what ensures that candidates for president do not ignore these smaller states.
Another way to see the effect of size is to look at the analogy of a coin toss. For a simple example, let’s assume that only two candidates are running, A versus B, and each vote is like a random coin toss, with a fifty percent chance of going either way. In your state of three, there’s a fifty percent chance that the other two votes will split, one for A and the other for B, and thus a 50 percent chance that your single vote will determine the election. Therefore candidates will give each of the three of you a lot of respect.
As a nation gets larger, the citizens voting power shrinks. If you are part of a five-voter nation, the other four voters would have to split, two for A and two for B – for your vote to turn the election. The probability of that happening is 3 in 8, or 37.5 percent. As the nation’s size continues to go up, individual voting power continues to drop.
This power of the smaller states was especially evident during this year’s election. For the first time in many years, the candidates knew that the election would be close. Because of this, presidential and vice-presidential candidates visited smaller states in record numbers. For example, Oregon, with its 7 Electoral votes had 17 visits from these candidates during this election. This more than tripled the number of visits during the 1996 presidential race and reinforced the importance of smaller states having the Electoral College.
The third, and last purpose, for the Electoral College was that the framers did not trust the “mob.” (Natapoff). They believed that a large electorate could easily “fall prey to passions, rumors, and tumult.” Electors were supposed to consider each candidate’s merits more judiciously, not just blindly follow the popular will.
Akhil Amar, a government professor at Yale University, argues that the Electoral College was set up 200 years ago because, “Common people may not have enough accurate information to make a wise decision and therefore needed someone to ensure the right choices would be made.”(Onion).
James Madison, chief architect of the Electoral College, also wanted to protect each citizen against, “the most insidious tyranny that arises in democracies: the massed power of fellow citizens banded together in a dominant bloc. A well-designed democracy might include obstacles to thwart an overbearing majority and to prevent a candidate from only wooing the largest bloc.” Madison further explained in the Federalist Papers (No. X), “a well-constructed Union must, above all else, break and control the violence of faction, especially the superior force of an overbearing majority. In any democracy, a majority’s power threatens minorities. It threatens their rights, their property, and sometimes their lives.”
Unfortunately, this has been an ongoing problem since the constitution was written. Some examples of the masses making poor decisions that affect the lives of many can be seen in places like Nazi Germany, where the masses supported the Third Reich and there efforts to eliminate the Jews. This is still happening today in places like Yugoslavia, where the majority continues to elect Slavadon Malosivich even though he continues to kill the people of Bosnia and Croatia. To prevent these types of things from happening in a democracy, you must install safe guards against this and that is why the framers decided to use the Electoral College system to protect the American people.
However, there are some people who feel that the Electoral College has problems. The most widely talked about problem with the Electoral College is the rare occasion when someone can actually win the popular vote and loose in the Electoral College. Just such a scenario is beginning to play in this year’s election. It appears as though Al Gore has won the popular vote while it appears that George W. Bush will win the Electoral College. And this to some people seems very unfair and undemocratic. There are a few problems with this theory. The first is, in order to protect the American people against tyranny, this things may happen. Although, in the last 220+ years, only 5 times has the winner of the popular vote not been elected president. That’s a pretty good track record by any measurement. Second, even though Al Gore did win the popular vote, he knew well before the election that the only majority that mattered is in the Electoral College. The easiest way to explain this would be Natapoff’s explanation of the 1960 World Series.
The more that Natapoff looked into the nitty-gritty of real elections, the more parallels he found with another American institution that stirs up the same emotion, baseball’s World Series. In the World Series, for example, the team that gets the most runs overall is like the candidate who gets the most popular vote. But to become champion, that team must still win most of the games. In 1960, during a World Series as nail-bitingly close as that year’s presidential battle between Kennedy and Nixon, the New York Yankees, with the combination of Mantle, Marris, and Bill “Moose” Skowron, scored more than twice as many total runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates, 55 to 27. Yet the Yankees lost the best of seven series four games to three. Even the Yankees fans conceded that the Pirates deserved to win in this hard fought battle.
Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games, just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states. The Yankees won three blowouts (16-3, 10-0, 12-0), but they couldn’t come up with the runs they needed in the other four games, which were close (Table A). In sports, we accept that a true champion should be more consistent than the 1960 Yankees. A champion should be able to win at least some of the tough, close contests by every means available – bunting, stealing, pitching, and dazzling play in the field – and not just hit home runs against third-rate pitchers. A presidential candidate worthy of office, by the same logic, should have a broad appeal across the whole nation, and not just play strongly on a singular issue to isolated blocs of voters. Therefore it can be argued that just because you get more votes, it does not mean that you are the best person for the job.
Game1234567Total RunsTotal Wins
New York Yankees4161022129553
The Electoral College was created to ensure that Congress did not have too much power, to give the smaller states more power, and to protect the masses from tyranny. The system the framers of the Constitution formed is an institution that is even more effective today than it was over 200 years ago. My hope is that after reading this paper and evaluating the evidence, you will have gained a better understanding of the importance of the Electoral College and its effectiveness in today’s world.