The Electoral College: dead or alive?

By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

Our Founders did not really trust people to decide the country’s destiny. That’s why they set up a Senate selected by the legislators in each state, not by popular vote (such as that was at the time). And that’s why they set up an Electoral College to cushion the weight of population in choosing a president.

The US House is based on the population principle. Although the current spate of gerrymandering defeats the principle of fair representation, at least the resulting districts all have roughly equal populations after the redistricting that occurs after every ten-year census.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of Chester County. Pennsylvania has a population of 12,803,000 (2015 estimated, rounded from Wikipedia) and 18 seats in Congress, or one seat per 717,000 people. Chester County, with 516,000 people, thus corresponds to 81% of a congressional seat. It would be better if the whole County occupied a single congressional district (with 19% of constituents from a neighboring county), but it is currently gerrymandered among 3 districts.

In the Electoral College, Pennsylvania has 20 delegates (18 + the 2 Senators), thus about one electoral vote per 640,000 people. So Chester County’s population corresponds to about 80% of an electoral vote.

Now let’s look at Wyoming, with 586,000 people and just one Congressperson but of course, like us, 2 Senators, for 3 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 195,000 people. By that standard, Chester County would have more than 2.5 electoral votes.

The Founders felt pressure not to antagonize the smaller states. In the 1780’s, representatives of the smaller states worried about being pushed around by the most populated states (counting all human beings: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina). The Senate was designed, under the bicameral legislature created by the “Connecticut Compromise,” to reassure the likes of Rhode Island and Georgia. Thus today, Wyoming has one Senator per 293,000 people and California one per 19,572,000.

So the discrepancy between Electoral College and state population is a historical artifact. Actually two states, Maine and Nebraska, apportion electoral votes among congressional districts, which could be a good idea if all states did it. Republicans wanted to do it in Pennsylvania back when they thought a Democrat would always win the popular vote here; now they are no doubt glad they failed in that attempt.

As set up in 1787, the Electoral College did not require its members to vote for the presidential winner in their own state. Alexander Hamilton explains why in Federalist Paper 68 (March 1788):

“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

That is, voters do not choose the president but choose “men” (read “electors”) to do so. And Hamilton expects those electors to analyze, deliberate, and investigate. In other words, the Electoral College is a layer of decision-making between the states’ own votes and the actual choice of a president.

The purpose, for Hamilton, was to prevent “tumult and disorder” and “cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” Many have made the case that the 2016 election was characterized by those ills and that these would continue in a Trump regime that could owe its existence to Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, and unknown cyberoperatives abroad. Hamilton specifically aims to prevent the “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

Choosing his words as if he could foresee 2016, Hamilton says:

“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”

Clearly, then, he is saying that the Electoral College, which convenes separately in each state, protects the country against a foreign front person or a popular demagogue. About half the states have passed laws trying to defeat that protective and moderating function, but whether those laws are constitutional isn’t really clear.

The chance of electors actually carrying out their function as Hamilton describes today is about as high as the likelihood of a Republicans giving a vote in Congress to the nation’s “minority majority” and predominantly Democratic capital.

Nevertheless, the ongoing interplay of history and current events never fails to add drama to our political life. If the cast of “Hamilton” can deliver an in-person message to the vice president-elect, why can’t the Electoral College actually listen to what the real Hamilton said?

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One Comment

  1. Cindy Udell says:

    Speak up!!! Let your elected representatives know your opinion about the obsolescence of the Electoral College.

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