The Wisdom of the Electoral College

  • José Azel
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The Wisdom of the Electoral College

4 years 5 months ago
The United States is a republic, not a democracy. We owe this distinction to the ageless wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Think about it this way; suppose you live in a condominium building of ten apartment units. Nine of the units are occupied by a single person. The remaining unit is occupied by an extended family of ten.

If the condominium association voted democratically, one person one vote, the one family of occupants would control the association’s vote. And, they would likely appoint themselves as condominium managers with a juicy salary. Fortunately, condominium associations are created, in republican fashion, with one vote per unit regardless of population.

The Electoral College is constituted every four years for the sole purpose of electing the President and the Vice President. The number of electors for each state equals the combined total of the state’s Congressional representation – the number of House members, plus the state’s two senators.

Together with the separation of powers, the Electoral College is fundamental to American federalism. Most states appoint their electors on a winner- take-all basis, based on the statewide popular vote. Currently, the Electoral College consists of 538 electors, and an absolute majority of 270 electoral votes is required to win an election.

The Founding Fathers were deeply concerned with the problems inherent in what James Madison called “the tyranny of the majority,” and they went to great lengths to design a republic not based on the will of the majority. The word ‘democracy’ was deliberately avoided by the Framers; it does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution.

With their government design, the Framers sought to protect individual rights, not only from government, but also from our fellow citizens. As Alexander Hamilton explained: “We are now forming a republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate government.” With democratic governance, individual freedoms can be subverted by majority rule. The Constitution seeks to advance liberty, not democracy.

The Electoral College balances the competing interests of states with large and small populations. If the popular vote was the only vote that mattered, candidates would concentrate their efforts on densely populates states, ignoring smaller states and the less populated areas of the country. Without the Electoral College system, campaign economics would dictate that candidates campaign mostly in states with large urban populations and big media markets. Presidential candidates would behave as if many Americans did not exist.

To win an Electoral College majority, candidates must build a national coalition to gather support in various regions. Nationwide campaigning helps promote national cohesion, the orderly transfer of power, and the stability of our political system.

The main argument against the Electoral College system is that it may contravene the popular vote, as happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote, and in 2016, when Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote but lost the popular vote.

In this upcoming 2020 presidential election, once again, we hear some candidates arguing for the abolishment of the Electoral College. A central theme of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is: “Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.” Other candidates have echoed this sentiment.

Abolishing the Electoral College requires a constitutional amendment, and to get around this impediment, some detractors are promoting a horrific plan that awards all the electoral votes of a state to the presidential candidate that wins the national popular vote. In essence, this National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) could contravene state voters by requiring a state to award all its electoral votes to a candidate that did not win a majority in the state. And yet, to date, twelve states have adopted the NPVIC.

When it comes to the Electoral College, we should defer to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. After all, we should not forget that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an event of democratic popular support.

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  • Gerardo E. Martínez-Solanas
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Re: The Wisdom of the Electoral College

4 years 5 months ago
With all due respect for Prof. Azel, with whom I agree on many of his arguments published in this forum, I sincerely regret that this time he emerges from the conundrum that leads many others who fall into the error of pretending that the United States is NOT a democracy, for the simple reason that it is a republic.

The problem for many who have been educated in the United States is that they are commonly taught that democracy is a product of ancient Greece. It’s their word: demokratia; after all, they invented it to identify a system of government. The city-state of Athens is credited with implementing a system of government of and by the people, whereby eligible citizens would congregate to make decisions. This new system in the ancient world was a direct democracy where decisions were taken in open Assembly.

Around 2,500 years later, these ideas have evolved and diversified into several systems with different mechanisms, but also designed to comply with the need for a government of and by the people. Therefore, neither the United States nor practically any other democracy in the whole world is nowadays a direct democracy as the one born in Athens. Most countries have representative democracies on these days. Even Constitutional monarchies subsist through a mechanism of parliamentary democracy, which is a form of representative democracy.

Nevertheless, the United States practices some forms of participatory democracy, a sort of mechanism to allow some degree of direct democracy, such as ballot initiatives, referenda and town meetings, among others. However, we describe the United States as a representative democracy because it uses a system of elections to choose their representatives and their President.

The much-cited argument that the US Constitution does not use the word democracy does not hold to the abundant evidence, according to which the founding fathers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, Justice James Wilson and Chief Justice John Marshall spoke of "democracy". John Adams used the term “representative democracy” in 1794; so did Noah Webster in 1785; so did St. George Tucker in his 1803 edition of Blackstone; so did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Tucker’s Blackstone likewise uses “democracy” to describe a representative democracy, even when he did not use the qualifier “representative” and it has been usually omitted by others after him. Likewise, James Wilson, one of the main drafters of the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, defended the Constitution in 1787 by speaking of the three forms of government being the “monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical,” and said that in a democracy the sovereign power is “inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.”

Therefore all of them used the word democracy in their proposals and considerations for the creation of the new republic. That's right! The new republic. Because the United States of America is both a democracy and a republic. The first republic known as such was the Roman Republic; in fact a sort of representative democracy. In the case of the United States of America, we could very well define its system as a "federal constitutional representative democracy" to be precise. But there is no basis for saying that the United States is somehow “not a democracy, but a republic.” “Democracy” and “republic” aren’t just words that a speaker or writer can arbitrarily define to mean something different, because if no democratic system exists in a country, it cannot be named a republic. Of course, there are fake "republics" and fake "democracies", but that is fodder for another topic.
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