This article appears in the March 2001 issue of Ideas on Liberty, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Should the Electoral College be abolished? Last year's presidential election raised the question once again but it also answered it with an emphatic NO. The Framers of the Constitution knew precisely what they were doing when they established the system for electing presidents, which is more than anyone can say about the people who spent weeks last fall counting those celebrated "dimples" and "pregnant chads" in Florida.
The 2000 election was the 53rd since George Washington was chosen in 1792. Even on the three previous occasions when a split decision between the popular and electoral votes occurred, the Electoral College was the mechanism for a decisive conclusion to an election and a certain transition to a final winner. If popular votes alone determined the outcome, a dozen presidential elections would have been close enough for the result to be contested without end, or at least without an end that most Americans could see as fair and honest. What dragged out the contest between Bush and Gore were the partisan lawsuits and the tortuous methods employed to recount votes or decipher voter "intent."
Indeed, the closeness of the 2000 election in so many placesmultiple states as well as the nation as a wholesuggests that we should thank our lucky stars the Framers gave us the system we have.
It is precisely because of the Electoral College that the recounting of votes focused on one state instead of many. If the popular vote decided the winner, we would still be bogged down in questionable recounts in dozens, if not hundreds, of counties across the country. The potential for mistakes and abuse would have been enormously compounded, and the cloud over the eventual winner would have been all the more dark and ominous.
Some say that it is inherently unfair for a candidate to win in the Electoral College and become president if another candidate actually has more popular votes. It should be noted at the outset that it is extremely unlikely this could ever happen when the popular vote margin is wide. A narrow margin in the popular votenarrow enough to be wiped out with a few vote-rigging recountscries out for a decisive conclusion, and that's what the Electoral College offers.
But whether the losing candidate's popular vote victory is large or small, the fact that a win in the Electoral College is all that finally matters is not unfair. It's not unfair that little Rhode Island gets just as many senators as does big California. It's not unfair that 34-year-olds can't become president or that a simple majority in the Congress is insufficient to approve a treaty, convict an impeached president, or amend the Constitution. Nor is it unfair that the winner of the World Series is the team that wins four games, not necessarily the one that had the most hits. These are the rules of the game and in the case of the Electoral College, the rules were originally written for some very good reasons.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, some delegates wanted the popular vote to elect the president. Others argued that Congress should make the pick. The smaller, less populated states feared, correctly, that under either of those options they would be swallowed up or ignored by the larger, more populous states. The Electoral College represented not only a compromise to accommodate the concerns of the small states, but also a singular act of genius on the part of the Framers. They did not reject the notion of a truly "democratic" election; they affirmed, in fact, that a democratic election occurring in each state would largely decide each state's vote for president in the Electoral College. The institution serves as a pillar of our federal system of government, wherein the stateswhich created the central government in the first placedo not dissolve into an amorphous national mass but rather, retain a substantial identity and hence, a check on unbridled power in Washington.
Moreover, the fact that a candidate must win a majority in the Electoral College means that he cannot focus all his resources and attention on campaigning in only a few large states. He must fashion a truly national appeal, as opposed to a divisive regional one. That helps assure that the winner will enjoy an added measure of support and legitimacy that derives from a relatively broad base.
Thankfully, the question of abolishing the Electoral College is moot because the hurdles a constitutional amendment would have to jump to accomplish that end are simply too high. Too many small states would block it, as they have successfully done on numerous previous occasions. They understand that doing away with the Electoral College would shift the focus of presidential elections to a handful of large, populous states.
One reform that does make sense is one requiring that electors vote for the candidate who won their respective states. The Framers assumed that they would, but left it to the states to settle the details. Twenty-six states have such a requirement, but fourteen do not. One unscrupulous political hack attempted a rather sleazy effort to "persuade" Bush electors to switch to Gore when the Electoral College voted last December. Nailing this reform down would prevent the hacks of the world from slithering out from under their rocks to put pressure on vulnerable electors and steal an election.
Finally, it may be instructive to everyone who followed the recent election controversy to consider a page from presidential history:
The last time a close election produced a split decision in the popular vote and the Electoral College was 1888. Grover Cleveland, the incumbent Democratic president, had been through a close one once before. In 1884, he won New York by just 1,200 votesand with it, the presidencybut a switch of barely 600 votes in that one state alone would have swung the election to Republican James G. Blaine. Four years later, Cleveland bested Benjamin Harrison by about 100,000 votes out of 11 million cast nationwide but he lost in the Electoral College 233-168. Because the contest was tight in a number of states, a slight shift in the popular vote plurality would have easily won it all for the incumbent.
One reason the American people accepted the 1888 outcome in stride was that the federal government of that era just didn't matter in their lives like the one of today does. Adjusted for inflation, Washington now spends more in two average days than the first Cleveland administration spent in an entire year. The federal government will claim more than a third of national income in 2001; in 1888, it got by on about a tenth of that. Cut Washington down to its proper size, and who wins which countthe popular or the Electoralwon't be of earthshaking consequence.
Cleveland handled his 1888 defeat with dignity. No recounts, no lawsuits, no spin, no acrimony. His grace in defeat was all the more remarkable considering that the loss meant he had to relinquish power he already possessed, not merely accept failure to attain it. He would not tolerate his political allies making an issue of the discrepancy between the popular and Electoral tallies. There was nary a hint of a "constitutional crisis" because the Constitution was Cleveland's "controlling legal authority."
Alyn Brodsky, in a superb biography published this year entitled Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character, records that when reporters asked to what he ascribed his defeat, Cleveland smiled and said, "It was mainly because the other party had the most votes." He did not equivocate. He did not whine and fret that he won more popular votes than Harrison. The "votes" to which he referred were the ones that really matter under the rules of the ConstitutionElectoral College votes.
To anyone today who wants to toss out this venerable institution known as the Electoral College, let that be a lesson.