Why is the Electoral College Necessary?

Part of Enduring Lessons on Life and Citizenship

After raising his own family and teaching kids of all ages for over 40 years, Professor Larry shares some of his wisdom about what kids REALLY need to know about life and citizenship.

Part of Enduring Lessons on Life and Citizenship

After raising his own family and teaching kids of all ages for over 40 years, Professor Larry shares some of his wisdom about what kids REALLY need to know about life and citizenship.

Why is the Electoral College Necessary?
Enduring Lesson filed in How to Teach History

All, and I repeat, all criticisms of the electoral college emanate from a fundamental misunderstanding of the United States as it was founded. It comes down to this: the USA is not a democracy. We are a constitutional republic.

All, and I repeat, all criticisms of the electoral college emanate from a fundamental misunderstanding of the United States as it was founded. It comes down to this: the USA is not a democracy. We are a constitutional republic.

The word “republic” comes from Latin and from Roman times meaning “rule by the people.” This was one of the “four pillars of American exceptionalism,” namely common law. Government originated with the people, then moved up to its leaders. However, along with common law came natural law or God-given rights as delineated in the Declaration, namely the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (by which Thomas Jefferson meant property). In other words, people can pass any law they want so long as it does not interfere with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

To ensure the protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we must move forward from the Declaration in 1776 to the Constitution in 1787. There, the protections were established by way of two major foundations: separation of powers and federalism. As most people know, separation of powers involved division of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch. Originally, the Founders did not think of the courts as wielding as much power as they did. Federalism as originally intended meant a division among national, state, and local legislatures or assemblies—not merely a division of power among federal and state governments. The Founders believed most power should reside in the legislature.

Further preserving these freedoms, the Founders put in place numerous safeguards against the “mob,” or “democracy.” It was widely understood that “the mob” could be easily swayed by emotion and often neither take the time nor the energy to slow down the process and look analytically at a situation. Further it was understood that the masses were open to voting themselves benefits that might come from others (a minority) in defiance of the Constitutional guarantees found in the Bill of Rights. Thus one of the first compromises, known as the “Great Compromise,” balanced a House of Representatives that represented the “people” with a Senate whose members were selected by the state legislature. It is for another time to discuss why the 17th Amendment was a bad idea, and why there are times that a state’s interests could conceivably differ from those of the people of that state at a given time. (The most obvious is that if a current group of people give away state powers to receive benefits for themselves, they are stealing those powers from future generations.)

So where does the Electoral College come in? It was widely believed that people of different states had different interests. The interests of the people of New Jersey—a coastal state—might not align with those of, say, New Hampshire, which did not have access to the ocean. In later times, the interests of the people of, say, Arizona—where the need for water is critical—might differ greatly from those of the people of Florida or Michigan, where water is not an issue. But it was thought to be too restrictive to simply leave the election of a president up to the states alone. Surely the people directly should have a voice. Thus the Founders decided to let the people of a state vote for electors who then would cast their vote for the state’s choice for president. The number of electors was equal to the number of legislators and the number of senators a state had, so every state, at minimum, would have at least three electors (two senators and at least one representative).

It is critical to understand that without this compromise, there would have been no United States in the first place. The small population states would have have handed over all control to the large population states. Thus each state would have a meaningful voice in the election of a president. Moreover, the wise Founders prohibited anyone who was serving in government at the time from being an elector.

The first time the “popular” vote failed to produce a president was in 1824 when Andrew Jackson won over 41% of the popular vote to John Quincy Adams’s 30.9%, but two other candidates also received votes and Henry Clay ordered his electors to vote for Adams. Out of our 44 presidents (don’t forget, Grover Cleveland was elected, then lost reelection, then won the next election), we have had 19 winners who did not get a majority of the popular vote. What then? In such cases have the “people spoken?” Bill Clinton only got 43% of the popular vote in 1992—hardly a ringing endorsement—and Abraham Lincoln did not even reach 40% of the popular vote in 1860! Occasionally, however, the loser of the popular vote (Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and Donald Trump in 2016) can win a substantial share of the electoral college (58% and 56% respectively). In his reelection, Bill Clinton still failed to get 50% of the popular vote, but won a shocking 70% of the Electoral College.

Another reason for, and argument for, the Electoral College is that if everything depended on the popular vote, candidates would spend almost all of their time in four major cities—New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago—and five states (New York, California, Texas, Florida, and Illinois). Literally, the vast majority of the people in the interior of the country, from Kansas to Idaho, from Alaska to Alabama, from Delaware to Oregon, would have no say whatsoever in the election and would never be the focus of a campaign. Most recently, the argument that Hillary Clinton should have won the presidency because she won the popular vote is deeply flawed. It is akin to arguing that a football team that outgains its opponent in yardage by 200 yards—yet which loses by three touchdowns—was the “real” winner. No, the teams played by the rules. In football, merely gaining yards doesn’t matter if you don’t score. In presidential politics, if winning the popular vote was the objective, Donald Trump (who only visited California once after he won the nomination and Illinois and New York barely at all) would have spent considerably more time courting the large numbers of Republicans there. And there were over 5 million California Republicans in 2016—only Trump did not spend time campaigning there because he knew he would lose that state anyway. Instead he spent time in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio, winning every one.

Interestingly, Trump swung Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina—states that all voted Democrat in the previous election—in part because he campaigned hard there. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, did not even deign to visit Wisconsin! There are 18 states that do not have a single city larger than 250,000 people! How much of a role would they ever play in American “democracy” without an Electoral College? If you want “democracy,” the Electoral College is the only way to ensure that you have it. If you want “participation,” again, the Electoral College is the only way to guarantee that. Otherwise, onlly 144 counties in America even count, leaving almost 3,000 counties out of the electoral process.

The Electoral College was developed to ensure participation, state interests would be voiced, and a certain level of equality among all Americans. Without it, there would be no equality, only tyranny of a handful of urban zones that would quickly oppress the rest of the country. 

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