Voting Series - Part II
The Electoral College
For as long as I can remember, every time a general (Presidential) election comes around, the knives come out for the death of the Electoral College system. The main and most vocal argument is that presidential elections should be decided by a pure popular vote - a national grand total - because that would be fair for everyone, one person, one vote. What opponents of the Electoral College either fail to understand or refuse to care about is that a popular vote does, in fact, happen as part of the process, but a purely grand total popular vote as the decision-maker, in actuality, is not fair for everyone as claimed. Grasping the concept of the Electoral College system involves looking at several concepts, a little ancient history, and the careful rationale that went into its engineering.
Democracy vs. Representative Republic
Democracy, Democracy, Democracy! It is a word thrown around repeatedly and emphatically in just about every conversation that spills from the lips of politicians and news commentators, stuck like Gorilla Glue to the condition of our government structure and our country, and it is done so in egregious error (or, maybe, perhaps on purpose - you be the judge).
Historically, democracy developed naturally during the hunter-gatherer period where tribes were tight groups. The members shared common customs, dialect, agreed to a leader or set of leaders known by all members of the tribe, and so forth. It was a tight-knit community where everyone felt represented. As tribes came together and created larger, more diverse communities, particularly as agriculture and trade became more prevalent, the increasing population became vulnerable to hierarchies and factions developing, vying for power and dominion. Over time, “a community’s size and scale encouraged the spread of hierarchical and authoritarian forms of social organization. As a result, popular governments among settled peoples vanished, to be replaced for thousands of years by governments based on monarchy, despotism, aristocracy, or oligarchy, each of which came to be seen — at least among the dominant members of these societies — as the most natural form of government” (Britannica).
It is only natural that factions and power struggles would develop with the strongest or most numerous becoming the ruling entity - either as an individual or a small group of individuals. Throughout history, this aspect remains pretty much unchanged. With that development, the actual will of the people of those societies became less important and, therefore, less heard. The Founding Fathers clearly understood this because, one, they knew their history (including ancient history), and two, they had just experienced and fought a war to free themselves from it.
And speaking of ancient history, I dug deep and dusted off my copy of Plato’s (born circa 428 B.C.) Republic just to see what he had to say on the matter.
I was not disappointed. So let’s dive in.
Democracy in Plato’s Republic
Plato’s method, known as dialectic, uses conversation between his mentor Socrates, himself, and invited guests as a way to reason through and present ideas. In the Introduction to the Republic, C.D.C. Reeve lays out the main argument beginning, interestingly enough, with defining justice:
Thrasymachus is the most interesting of Socrates’ interlocutors in Book I of the Republic. He defines justice as the advantage of the stronger, it seems, because he thinks something like this: The stronger rule in any city or society and so control the education and socialization of their subjects. But, like everyone else, the rulers are self-interested. Hence they educate and socialize their subjects with their own advantage, not that of their subjects, in view. Consequently, the values — including the ethical values — that subjects acquire are not ones that it is in their own best interests to have, but rather values that serve the interests of their rulers. The actions that subjects value as just, for example, are actions that benefit the rulers, not the subjects who do them (xiv).
Just take a moment and let that sink in. Reflect on what our society, both American and globally, looks like. Flip through the channels on your TV and observe the programming, the ads. What do they reflect? Look through your kids’ or grandkids’ school textbooks. Then watch what themes those currently in power are going on about, emphasizing on a daily, even hourly basis. Talk to your friends, family, and neighbors about what they observe in their own daily lives versus what the TV, including the news, is telling them. Notice anything? Does it add up for you? Do all of these things truly reflect the environment of the subjects (the People) or of the rulers (President, Congress, etc.) telling the subjects this is what they should be thinking or caring about.
Approaching democracy, the conversation about what characterizes the best kind of city turns to the four constitutions of diseased cities (interestingly enough), all in the pursuit of true happiness. Socrates presents them as “four stages in increasing corruption or decline,” (213) in order of evolution:
Timocracy (Cretan/Laconian) - the Spartan constitution which is victory-loving and honor-loving “ruled by people whose souls are themselves…ruled by desire for honor, victories, and good reputation,” which then evolves into
Oligarchy - characterized by the insatiable desire for wealth “ruled by people whose souls are ruled by their necessary appetites” to the neglect of other things, which then evolves into
Democracy - the insatiable desire for what it defines as “good” (permissiveness, all freedom, all the time to become as rich as possible), “ruled by people whose souls are ruled by their unnecessary appetites” to the neglect of other things, which is also what destroys it and what then evolves into
Tyranny - tries to rein in excessive freedom and ends up creating the opposite of freedom, which is slavery/oppression, “ruled by someone whose soul is ruled by its lawless and unnecessary appetites.” Eventually this last stage leads to anarchy (213, 225, 232-3).
Keeping with democracy, Socrates characterizes it this way: “Its fiercest members do all the talking and acting while the rest settle near the speaker’s platform and buzz and refuse to tolerate the opposition of another speaker, so that, under a democratic constitution, with the few exceptions I referred to before, this class manages everything” (235). The conversation comes across as a cautionary tale and concludes with Socrates determining that the philosopher-king is the happiest and most just of people because he can “develop a theory of ethics that is itself free of the influence of false ideology” (xv), a timocrat second, an oligarch third, a democrat fourth, followed by the tyrant as “the most unjust and most wretched of them all” (241). So by his logic, the democrat is only a step better than the tyrant. Let that sink in.
This brings us to the shaping of the Constitution as it relates to electing the executive of the nation, a nation comprised at the time of 13 states within which were many communities. Among other things, all had similarity of purpose first and foremost, but all were unique as well - geographically, demographically, dialectically, industrially, etc. And while freedom of their respective and collective citizens was the goal, it was not freedom in the all-encompassing sense of Socrates’ democracy because the perils of such a condition lent themselves to tyranny, the thing from which they had just extricated themselves. So the problem before them was how to be as free as possible within limited, judicious but necessary restraints instituted to maintain order in a civilized society, preventing a fall back into tyranny over time?
The answer was a representative republic that contained some elements of a democracy.
Purpose of the Electoral College
Think about the consistent balance struck in so many aspects of the Constitution, ranging from checks and balances between the three branches of government to relationships between state and federal governments to insuring that every state has a fair voice in the national general election. The latter example is the Electoral College system.
Reminiscent of the Britannica characterization of a democracy and how it was most successful or efficient among smaller groups or entities, in his book Liberty and Tyranny, Mark Levin describes it this way:
States are governmental entities that reflect the personalities, characteristics, histories, and priorities of the individuals who choose to inhabit them. They have diverse geographies, climates, resources, and populations. No two states are alike. The same can be said of cities, towns, and hamlets within the states, which number in the tens of thousands and dot the nation’s landscape.
States are more likely to better reflect the interests of their citizens than the federal government. Localities are even more likely to better reflect these interests because the decision makers come from the communities they govern — they are directly affected by their own decisions. Moreover, the interaction between the people and their representatives at the state and local levels is easier and more direct (50).
Certainly, with 13 states at the time, this was a concern, especially with slower more laborious modes of transportation and communication. Fast forward to today with 50 states and Wi-Fi. So, why, when wanting to have a unified country, is the acknowledgement and preservation of the uniqueness of statehood within that country so important? Again, words matter — it’s a unified country not a uniform one. Keep this in the back of your mind as we go along.
Levin draws from Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who wrote “A single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country” (51). The states become spheres of “best practices” wherein these experiments can happen at the county and town levels, tried, evaluated, adopted or discarded. If such experiments were tried first at the federal level, you run the risk of harming the most people should it go wrong, and having to deal with the consequences on a massive scale.
Sounding not unlike Socrates, relative to the philosopher-king, Levin expands on Brandeis: “For the Framers, ‘experimentation,’ like change, was a matter of prudence. As previously described, change should be informed by the experience, knowledge, and traditions of society, tailored for a specific purpose, and accomplished through a constitutional construct that ensures thoughtful deliberation by the community. Change unconstrained by prudence produces unpredictable consequences, threatening ordered liberty with chaos and ultimately despotism” (51). A critical component here is “thoughtful deliberation by the community” and as I described in a previous article, the omnibus bill is a prime example of ramming something through without thoughtful deliberation under the rationale of having to pass it first in order to see what’s in it (Scarlett Patriot Gazette - “Convention of States: Article 5 - What and Why”). In order to get the truest will of the people from all states, the Electoral College serves as the mechanism by which each state has a fair voice in the general election of the nation’s executive, the President. He serves as the best representation of all of those states as a whole nation.
Going back to the Founding Fathers and their deliberations regarding electing an executive/president, one of their chief concerns was to safeguard against unhealthy influence either foreign or domestic. It would be too easy to influence and/or infiltrate groups of the nation’s population, thus skewing the selection away from the will of the People toward whatever sphere of influence was at hand. In “Federalist No. 68: The Mode of Electing the President,” Alexander Hamilton fervently laid it out this way:
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment (The Federalist and Antifederalist Papers, 253).
Just as Brandeis described, Richard P. Bruneau provides examples of how state experiments made solid contributions to the American condition on a national level. In his article, “Why the Electoral College Is Still Good for the United States,” he points out: “The states form the lifeblood of freedom and democracy. Fifty states, engaged in a hothouse of democratic experimentation and exploration for creative political solutions, has benefitted America throughout her history. Ending slavery, impossible at the founding on a national basis, began as a state movement. Likewise, states pioneered reforms and strengthened rights in a multitude of areas including civil liberties, voting, religious freedom, property rights, equality of opportunity, and many others.” Look at what states are doing today in the realm of education, health protection, and voting integrity. The 50-state hothouse is alive and well. Americans have the ability to move to a state that best reflects their beliefs and way of life. Fifty states unified but not uniform.
Bruneau explains what elimination of the Electoral College would create:
Presidential candidates could and would ignore states like Rhode Island and focus on states and districts with large population centers, offering more bang for the dollars. Small-state electoral votes have often affected the national outcome. Eliminate the Electoral College, and the voice of the voters in small states all but disappears in the presidential election.
Equally important, a direct popular vote would further erode the power of the states in maintaining the intended constitutional balance between national and state governments. The dispersion of power between the states, especially in relation to the federal government, is among the greatest protections against a concentrated national tyranny.
Sovereign states keep their identities and remain unique, strong, free, but unified under the Constitution. However, remove a mechanism like the Electoral College that protects these things, and you have uniform states subservient to a federal entity that can impose whatever it wants. This is not a new fight either as Hamilton’s words show.
On the other side, the side that resisted this mechanism for democratic reasons, an anonymous author known only as Republicus, wrote “Antifederalist No. 72: On the Electoral College; On Re-eligibility of the President.” His concern was that the Electoral College would place too many levels between the People and the President so that the President would not care about the People. He felt that direct election of the President was the only truly free way to go. “Is it necessary, is it rational, that the sacred rights of mankind should thus dwindle down to Electors of electors, and those again electors of other electors? This seems to be degrading them even below the prophetical curse denounced by the good old patriarch, on the offspring of his degenerate son: ‘Servant of servants’…” (The Federalist and Antifederalist Papers, 519).
This seems reminiscent of Socrates’ argument in the Republic except that Socrates shows the dangers of too much of what he calls the “unmixed wine of” freedom. “…unless the rulers are very pliable and provide plenty of that freedom, they are punished by the [democratic] city and accused of being accursed oligarchs” (519). It becomes unsustainable and eventually produces an unruly mob. A roll call of each state’s will as transmitted through the popular (democracy here) vote of that state’s people keeps the federal government and its executive (the President) ever mindful of each state’s unique identity and, thus, fair representation. These voices are loud, times 50, and give the President a very clear understanding of how the People feel regionally, not just as a collective voice. The president has to recognize each state, not just one amorphous blob of a nation.
Bruneau explains, “America can currently tolerate a socialism-friendly Vermont right alongside a no-income-tax polity such as New Hampshire because the U.S. system does not promote nor demand cookie-cutter [uniform] states. Abolishing the Electoral College threatens the voices, survivability, and creative freedom of all states…The Electoral College protects that diversity [of thought, action, and opportunities] and ensures that all voters matter, not just those who reside in urban areas or states. The Electoral College also stands against the concentration of power and the potential for voter abuse.” He uses the example of the 2020 election where voter fraud has emerged but because of this mechanism, litigation has been limited to only a handful of states and localities, such as big cities/counties. If this mechanism had not been in place, “strangulating litigation” would occur across all 50 states since victory would “ride solely on the national vote.”
In his 2016 article, “A Defense of the Electoral College,” Michael C. Maibach outlines three main criticisms of this system. The first, which has already been discussed here is that the Electoral College is “undemocratic.” The second is the argument that it allows for the election of a candidate who may not have obtained the most votes (national popular vote total). This has been briefly touched on where the popular votes, and therefore all votes, within a state determine the winning candidate represented by the will of the People in that state. The fact that it occurs at the state level rather than collectively at the national level does not make the votes less valid. In fact, it makes their votes more valid. The final argument is that the winner-take-all approach “cancels the votes of the losing candidates in each state.” This last argument speaks to the cry that not all votes are counted (by their “negation”). By this logic, even popular direct voting as in state and local elections, negate votes as there is only one winner in any contest, so the votes for the losing candidate would also be negated because, well, that candidate received fewer votes and lost. The winning candidate “takes all” in that s/he gets the office, wholly and completely. The winner does not share it with the loser for an amount of time proportional to the number of votes received out of the total votes cast. Right? Think about it, does the winning candidate for your mayor proportionally split time as mayor with the losing candidate so that the votes cast for the losing candidate aren’t “negated”? Votes are not wasted. Quite the opposite — they are what determines a winner just at the state level.
Maibach explains further:
The Electoral College creates a national majority for new presidents regardless of the popular vote margin. Reflecting the will of majorities in fifty states, the College legitimizes the result…Moreover, if America used direct elections, many more “third party” candidates would arise to render U.S. vote margins even more inconclusive than in the past. Most third party candidates receive no Electoral College votes…the multi-party parliamentary systems in Europe are replete with “coalition governments” and “intractable gridlocks.” Self-rule is hard. “Simple” solutions can beget complicated and even harsh results."
Makeup of the Electoral College — Doing the Math
If each state has a voice, then smaller, less populous states remain heard and have influence. In this way each and every state and, therefore, each and every vote matters. “The founders designed the Electoral College to moderate the influence of large states and big cities over small states and rural districts” (Bruneau).
So how does this work?
Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector (U.S. Constitution, Article. II. Section.1).
Each state has a certain number of electors that are determined as follows:
Every state gets 2 electors, 1 for each of the 2 senators — equal representation.
Every state also gets the same number of electors for each member they have in the House of Representatives — proportional representation based on the population of the state.
Total of 1 and 2 above equals the total number of electors for each state. For example, according to the most recent election map, less populous states like Maine, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska have 3 electoral votes (2 for their Senators and 1 for their Representative). More populous states like California (54), Texas (40), and Florida (30) have 2 electors for their Senators and 52, 38, and 28 electors respectively for their Representatives.
Each state then represents 1 vote for their winning candidate through a roll call in Congress.
All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) are winner-take-all, meaning the winner of the popular vote for a state is represented by all of the electors for that state. Maine and Nebraska split their electors.
So even the least populous states are guaranteed at least 3 electors. The direct popular vote (the People) determines their state’s choice for President by a majority. The electors then carry out the will of the People, representing their vote decision at the national seat of power.
Parties, Parties Everywhere…
Part and parcel of the Electoral College debate is the idea of one of the two major parties splitting into a third party. This has been a frequent topic for example with the rise of the Tea Party movement (2010) and the MAGA movement (2016 - present) in the Republican Party, and even goes back to the days of Ross Perot running as an Independent. While there are numerous parties within the United States, they are seldom seen at the national level. The slate of candidates representing more than the two major parties (Republican and Democrat) with Independent as the usual third party, is much more numerous according to Ballotpedia:
As of December 2021, there were 209 state-level ballot-qualified political party affiliates in the United States. Some parties are recognized in multiple states. For example, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are recognized in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. These two parties account for 102 our of 209 total state-level parties. Three minor parties were recognized in more than 10 states as of December 2021:
Libertarian Party: 33 states
Green Party: 17 states
Constitution Party: 12 states
Although there are dozens of political parties in the United States, only certain parties qualify to have the names of their candidates for office printed on election ballots. In order to qualify for ballot placement, a party much meet certain election requirements that vary from state to state.
This process alone is a prime example of how the states uniquely serve as that hot-house laboratory for experimentation, in this case regarding what political parties best reflect a state’s beliefs. Through an individual state’s requirement process, parties other than the main two have a chance to gain a say, so much so that the Libertarian party has made great strides over the years, now in 33 of the 50 states with the Green and Constitution Parties just behind.
Elimination of the Electoral College would see a sharp and rapid rise of presidential candidates, and while number and diversity of candidates is not a bad thing, an unmanageable flood of them is as Maibach points out: “The number of presidential candidates would rise sharply — not to win, but to deny any candidate fifty percent of the vote. This would lead to a national run-off election with political deal-making and ballot litigation that would make Florida’s 2000 recount seem like a minor dust-up…citizens of small and rural states — ignored by presidential campaigns — might consider leaving a ‘union’ that no longer valued their voices or votes in choosing a president.”
It becomes frustrating to hear pundits and direct popular “votists” throw around the notion of eradicating the Electoral College as if it is something whose time has passed, and such an act would be as harmless as removing one’s appendix. If the lessons of history and extremely careful and deliberative thought have taught us nothing, it is that old does not necessarily mean no longer important or useful. To want to abolish such a system that was carefully conceived, without rationally and objectively thinking through the consequences of such an action is both reckless and full of unintended but inevitable consequences.
While key links to resources exist throughout the article, below are additional places you can go to learn more about the Electoral College and voting in our country. I have also included information for historical comparison relative to the topics.
In Defense of the Electoral College - Five Reasons to Keep Our Despised Method of Choosing the President by Richard A. Posner
December 2021 list of ballot-qualified parties by state — see chart in Ballotpedia where each state is hot-linked to show the specific requirements.
History of Voting in America — Timeline from 1776
Ballot Access Requirements for Political Parties — All 50 States
Why the Electoral College Is So Important by Paula Ryan
Why the Electoral College Is Still Good for the United States by Richard P. Bruneau
A Defense of the Electoral College by Michael C. Maibach