The following is a response by Mackinac Center for Public Policy President Lawrence Reed to a high-school debate student's questions about the Electoral College and the nature of American government. Students regularly use the Mackinac Center's Ask the Debate Coach web feature for help developing powerful cases based on sound principles of economics and political science.
If we are a democracy, why does a person from Wyoming's vote count almost three times more than someone from California? If small states like Wyoming think they wouldn't have any weight in a popular vote election, why was the popular vote split by a number very close to that of Wyoming's population?
I've written several articles on the Electoral College, and I am happy to answer your questions one at a time. Your first question: If we are a democracy, why does a person from Wyoming's vote count almost three times more than the vote of someone from California?
Answer: The premise is incorrect. We are not a democracy. We are a republic--which is a representative form of government that captures the best elements of democracy while jettisoning its worst. Too many people throw around that term "democracy" without understanding what it means. If they understood it, they would realize that they're probably not advocates of its purest form, which would mean that we decide every matter by majority vote. Perhaps ancient Athens for a brief time came closest to this, but no society of any size and complexity can practice this form of governance for very long. It's unwieldy and unworkable, endlessly contentious, and disrespectful of certain inalienable rights of individuals who may find themselves in the minority.
People like the sound of "democracy" because it implies that all of us have equal say in our government and that a simple majority is somehow inherently fair in deciding all or virtually all issues. Upon closer examination, it should become very apparent that subjecting every decision of governance to a vote of the people is utterly impossible. Many decisions have to be made quickly; many decisions require knowledge of the issue that few people possess or have the time to become expert on; and many decisions don't belong in the hands of any government at all.
An example of the last point: Suppose someone says, "I just don't like people with red hair. I think we should confiscate their property. Let's have a vote on that." A democratic purist would have to reply, "All in favor say aye." A person interested in securing and protecting individual rights would have to say, "That's not a proper function of government, and even if 99 percent of the citizens vote for that, it's still wrong and illegitimate. There's nothing about mob rule that makes such a decision legitimate. There is never, anywhere or any time, any justification for any government to take someone's property just because he has red hair, and no pile of votes or dimpled chads can change that. Is that anti-democratic? Yes, it is. Some things, like individual rights, are infinitely more important than the notion that Jim and Sally Taxeater want to stick their grubby little fingers into Joe Taxpayer's pockets."
So if I were in a debate on this subject, I'd be tempted to say, "We're not a democracy any more than we're a divine right monarchy. Period. Next question?"
A republican form of government modifies pure democracy considerably. It provides a mechanism whereby almost anyone can have some say in some matters of government. We can run for office. We can support candidates and causes of our choosing. We can speak out in public forums. And, indeed, a few matters are actually decided by majority vote. But a sound republic founded on principles that are more important than voting (like individual rights) will put strong limits on all this. In its Bill of Rights, our Constitution clearly states, "Congress shall make no law . . ." It doesn't say, "Congress can pass anything it wants so long as 50 percent plus 1 support it even if none of the voters know a thing about the issue." How brainless and destructive that would be! If some debater wants to say "We're a democracy" then you could fire back, "Then explain why there's a laundry list of things our Constitution says not even Congress can make a law about."
Bottom line: We are not Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. We are not a pack of wolves and a handful of sheep voting on what to have for lunch. We're a republic with certain limitations on what the mob can do to others who are not members of the same mob.
The Electoral College, for all the reasons expressed in my previous article that you can certainly feel free to use, was one way the Founders reined in the democratic mob rule impulse. It's the rules of the game. The reasons the Founders created it are sound ones: to protect states' rights and our system of federalism, so crucial to keeping the national government in check; and to prevent a presidential campaign in which the candidates simply cater to a handful of vote-rich populous states and ignore everybody else, which would be tremendously divisive and destructive of national unity and any sense on the part of all the people that the election winner is indeed "legitimate."
Your second question: If small states like Wyoming think they wouldn't have any weight in a popular vote election, why was the popular vote split by a number very close to that of Wyoming's population?
The Founders did not so micromanage the Electoral College process as to deny a state the right to make its own selection of a presidential winner more "democratic" if they choose to. If a state wants to adopt a process whereby electoral votes are parceled out according to the winner by congressional district, instead of a statewide winner-take-all approach, then it can do so. A few states have indeed adopted that approach and it has much merit to it. I personally would favor that modification in winner-take-all states, including my own of Michigan, but not by national decree. It should be left, as the Constitution provides, for each state to decide. Rather than open up the presidential selection process to the potentially disastrous and confusing direct popular vote everywhere (with all the attendant problems I wrote about in my article), advocates of abolishing the Electoral College would be better advised to focus their energies on this slight modification. Doing away with the College altogether and substituting a national popular vote determination is extreme, unwise, and unnecessary.
Good luck in your debate!
Lawrence W. Reed
Mackinac Center for Public Policy