The Electoral College: Why Are We Stuck With It?

Two weeks ago, for the fifth time in U.S. history, the voting system our Founding Fathers bequeathed us has skewed a presidential election. Once again, the true winner—the candidate who won the popular vote—will be denied the Oval Office.

If you wonder why the patriots devised this system, turn to Snopes.com to discover an inconvenient truth: these great men thought up the Electoral College to put a damper on democracy. Snopes, the fact-checking website, puts the matter bluntly: “At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Founding Fathers discussed at length whether presidential elections should be based entirely on the will of the people, or whether Congress (or some other small body of wise and informed men) should choose the President. They concluded that direct democracy was potentially dangerous, because a charismatic tyrant could manipulate the will of the people.”

Snopes quotes James Madison asserting that he believes that ordinary people vote unwisely: “It may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole . . . and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.”

“What this means,” Snopes points out, “is that the Electoral College exists primarily for two reasons: to allow for fair and equal representation of states, no matter their size or population, and to prevent a person unfit to govern from attaining office.”

Can we get rid of the Electoral College? The majority of Americans (68 percent in a 2013 poll) want to abolish it. Indeed, it has long been so unpopular that, according to FairVote.org, “Over the history of our country, there have been at least 700 proposed amendments to modify or abolish the Electoral College – more than any other subject of Constitutional reform.” Currently, more than 4,500,000 people have signed a petition distributed by Change.org that would provide a quick, temporary fix. The petition urges the electors pledged to Donald Trump to become “faithless” by switching their vote to Hillary Clinton, winner of the popular vote, when they cast their ballots on Dec. 19. This is possible, but extremely unlikely, Snopes concludes. And “it would also be wholly unprecedented in American history and would require a sudden and drastic change in the United States’ political traditions.”

A permanent (but also unlikely) abolishment route would require a Constitutional amendment passed by two-thirds of Congress and ratified by 38 states, as National Public Radio reports in its excellent primer. Barbara Boxer, the outgoing senator from California, has introduced a bill to start the process, but NPR cites the difficulty of getting an amendment passed. The site features NPR’s senior political editor and correspondent, Ron Elving, in a short, friendly video explanation of how the whole system works, including answering a question many of us are asking ourselves: What is an elector, anyway? Elving begins with a wry disclaimer: “Today we’re going to talk about the Electoral College, and I have to assure you before we begin—I am not making this up.”

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  • Mary Faucher November 22, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    This subject was also addressed in a recent New York Times article, dated November 10, 2016, entitled on-line: “The Electoral College is Hated by Many. So Why Does It Endure?” That piece notes “the critical role slavery played in the formation of the [Electoral College] system. [Southerners] were concerned that their constituents would be outnumbered by Northerners. The Three-Fifths Compromise, however, allowed states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person — enough, at the time, to ensure a Southern majority in presidential races.” The New York Times article also discusses two alternatives to a constitutional amendment to change the system: (1) each state could replace the winner-take-all system with an apportionment of electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska already do this; (2) “the so-called National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement among states to award all of their respective electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in a given election. So far, 10 states and the District of Columbia have joined the agreement. But it will only go into effect when enough states have signed on to guarantee that the winner of the popular vote would win an election.” There is more information about the National Popular Vote initiative on its website, http://www.nationalpopularvote.com.