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September 2015 Policy Study, Number 15-8


The Electoral College: Explaining a Constitutional Mystery and Defending American Constitutionalism





Perhaps one of the most inventive and clever designs by the Framers is the Electoral College. Rejecting the direct popular election of the President, the Framers of the Constitution looked to a more improved way to select a President by ensuring the protection of the states and providing every citizen with an equal vote. Gary L. Gregg, a political scientist and editor of Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College, wrote:


They [Framers] were convinced it would not be conducive to our common good to confine the political system to a simple and single formula of direct democracy. Rather, they established a complex system anchored to the more solid and varied foundations of a federative republic. As James Madison explained so clearly in Federalist 39, our Constitution is like a table with one leg upon the national community of individuals, a second upon the states directly as vital political entities, and yet a third upon a compound bond between the two.[1]


Gregg also argues that the design of the Electoral College reflects the greater role states played during the formation of the Constitution, which provides further evidence of the Founders’ commitment to federalism:


The Constitution itself was ratified by the votes of the states as sovereign states, not by a national referendum. Indeed, the ratification process was so constructed as to forbid any majority of states from binding the minority who did not freely choose to enter the new compact. Representation in the lower house of Congress was to be distributed according to population on a roughly one-man, one-vote proportional basis. But in the Senate, the states would exist as equal political entities, no matter their size in geography or population. The central government would act with power to compel individuals directly, but the states were to retain considerable authority over most functions of government, which adds another federal aspect for balance.[2]


The states would have a key role in the election of the President via the Electoral College. Perhaps the Electoral College and federalism are two of the most misunderstood components of American government today, partly because both are being undermined by the growth of big government and progressive democracy. Although the Electoral College is unfairly attacked by being criticized as being both “undemocratic” and “out of date,” the process is actually fairer than if the Constitution had called for a direct election of the President.


As the Framers came to a compromise over representation in Congress with the House of Representatives based on population and the Senate based upon equality, the Electoral College provides the same protection to small states. Under the Electoral College, the number of electors each state receives is based on the total number of Representatives and Senators. The Electoral College provides fair representation to small states; otherwise, just as with today, large states would dominate the election of the President. To summarize how the Electoral College works:


Mirroring the system as a whole, the presidential selection process was to be compound — both national and federal. The distribution of electors would partly be based on population (representation in the House) and partly on the states as autonomous political units (representation in the Senate). The system would be fair to both large states and small states, more populated regions and more rural communities. The process of selecting electors would occur separately in each state (and the method was left up to the people of the states to choose), and these electors would meet and deliberate within their own states. If the vote of the electors failed to resolve upon a single candidate, the more directly elected House would choose the president; however, House members would vote as single state delegations, adding yet another federal balance.[3]


Those who oppose the Electoral College argue that the system is archaic and undemocratic and that it either needs to be reformed or outright abolished and replaced with a direct national popular vote. The most aggressive movement against the Electoral College is led by supporters of the National Popular Vote (NPV), who advocate an interstate compact of states who agree to pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.


Opponents of the Electoral College fail to understand that not only does the Electoral College work, but it is also a fundamental part of our constitutional system. The Electoral College not only is a part of federalism, but it protects and maintains our two-party system, forces the political parties to build broad-based coalitions, and provides stability. The Founding Fathers rejected a direct national popular vote of the executive and even with close elections in our nation’s history — elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 — the Electoral College has proven to work.


Abolishing the Electoral College would have a devastating impact on our constitutional form of government. 




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