The Electoral College: Anachronism or Genius

Posted by Steve Marquis on November 22, 2008

Since US history and Civics is hardly taught anymore, many have almost forgotten why we have states and what it took to pull us together.  Along with more readings linked at the end of this note, I highly recommend the HBO miniseries focusing on John Adams and the building of our nation. At the time of the founding of this country, we were no more unified as nation than Iraq and it took the best of our forefathers, the finest blood of the people and the very grace of God Almighty to bring these disparate peoples together. That the 13 colonies nearly collapsed as a confederation of states after the Revolution is scantly known; the slave states vs. the free states, the large states vs. the sparsely populated states. Each had their competing interests and the whole thing very nearly came unraveled. Do watch that movie, it is spell binding -very well done.

The key takeaway was that the populists demanded democracy 1 man - 1 vote for everything. Less populated though strategically valuable states rightly feared the tyranny of the majority, wherein the less populated states would be ruled entirely by the denser populated states.

The genius was in allocating some power based on population (House of Representatives) and some power based only on the strategic region - 2 senators per state regardless of size. That gave smaller states a voice and power; otherwise they would certainly have split off.  For example, Nebraska is part of our bread basket and is strategically important as a region. They need a voice. We need them to have a voice. However, if the representation to congress was strictly by population, it would be "Nebraska who?" After much persuasion, this split in the house of congress, popular and regional representation, solved that problem and got buy-in from all the states. That need is just as valuable today as it was when the framers envisioned it. It is genius that trouble spots with regional and minority populations like Iraq would do well to take note of and civics starved Americans should re-learn to appreciate.

When in came to the Presidency, the founding Fathers applied the same split method, They leaned toward poplar election by allowing representation within the state to be proportional to the indigenous population, but then allowed the States to choose for themselves how to use that power. Most states, even today, chose to bundle their power, gathering all their voting power, winner take all, and then projecting their power in the final vote in the Electoral College. If it weren't for that winner-take-all bundling effect, the presidential candidates would not bother to give the smaller states the time of day and would spend almost all their time on a small handful of states.

Without this half popular, half regional voting scheme, the people of those smaller states would have been disenfranchised of the Executive branch just as they feared disenfranchisement from the legislative branch. This so called Electoral College, following the pattern of the Senate and House representation, was the key genius that cemented the constitutional deal, a deal that has been the most successful government and people the world has ever seen and it endures still.

So for those public school grads who missed REAL civics, I hope this helps you see what is truly a divinely inspired form of government, Remember, there is also a concept of Tyranny of the Majority; The patriots, Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and many more found brilliance in a process that precluded the tyranny of a master as well as tyranny of your neighbors.

Steve Marquis 11/22/08

Outstanding in-depth review of the Electoral College concept by Heritage Foundation Tata Ross

Federalist Society Debate on the Electoral College