Democracy versus the Electoral College

Jennifer L. Jackson // Published May 20, 2008 in Global Politician
Democracy is more than a form of government or a political science concept; democracy is an idea, an ideal, an aspiration. Wars have been waged to spread it, and peace has been sought to protect it. While the United States claims to be the birthparent of democracy, the Electoral College puts the free child up for adoption to the least populous states.

Article II Section 1 of the United States Constitution establishes the process for the election of the President of the United States and is centered on a body of "Electors." The process described therein was later termed the "Electoral College." Alexander Hamilton explained the virtue of this system, which he referred to as "excellent," in Federalist Paper No. 68 and presented four major points to the public in support of the electors. First, the intent was for the people to influence the election of the President, "the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided." Second, the Framers wished to protect the office from uneducated voters, and thus the selection of the President was to be, "made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities…most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation." The third precaution was to insulate the office of President from corruption or infiltration by a foreign nation; thus the electors were not to comprise a standing institution, but rather an ad hoc group, "not…to depend on any pre-existing bodies of men who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes" where the electors "will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias." Hamilton's final rationale was that "this process of election affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications…there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."

Hamilton's second point does not hold true in modern American society, where access to information and education are cultural norms. The average American citizen is not any more or less capable of making an informed decision about the character and policy positions of Presidential candidates than are the chosen electors. The emergence of the media (notably the internet and televised debates) as the primary interface between presidential candidates and the public qualify all citizens equally capable of making such a decision. The stated intent (as indicated by Hamilton's first point) is for the will of the people to be expressed in the election of the President, and the will of the people is expressed in no more certain terms than via popular vote. The third desired result of the Constitutional election system, the protection against corruption, is predicated on the assumption that a body would be electing the President as opposed to the people. Obviously it would be impossible for a special interest ("faction") to corrupt every American voter, and bribing every citizen over the age of eighteen would be cost-prohibitive. In Hamilton's final praise of the devised system of electors, he is confident it will produce Presidents of ability, virtue, and requisite qualifications. One need not look further than the current U.S. Administration to dispute the accuracy of this prediction.

Originally, electors cast two votes for President, whereby the individual winning the most votes would be President and the runner-up the Vice-President. The tied vote in the 1800 Election (ultimately decided by the House of Representatives) led to the ratification of the 12th Amendment, which required electors to cast separate votes for President and Vice-President. The 14th Amendment also spoke briefly to electors in Section 3, by forbidding individuals that "shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the United States from serving as an elector – a Reconstruction period Amendment. However, the bulk of Constitutional Amendments related to voting focus on the expansion of citizen voting rights. The 15th Amendment, also a Reconstruction Amendment, prevented the government from prohibiting a citizen's right to vote based upon "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women in 1920. The 23rd Amendment provided the citizens of Washington, D.C. with electors based upon their population, not to be less than three. The 24th Amendment forbade the application of a poll tax as a method for disenfranchising voters, in reality a mechanism to force implementation of the 15th Amendment. The 26th Amendment lowered the required voting age from 21 to 18 years old, in response to the Vietnam War. Congress and the States have repeatedly acted to protect and expand the right of citizens to vote, which properly adheres to the intent of the Framers in an effort for the will of the people to be reflected in the election of their President.

Despite the expansion of individual voting rights, a greater injustice persists. The Electoral College is a disproportionate system, with more voting power per capita given to smaller, less-populous states. For example, according to The Center for Voting and Democracy, "each individual vote in Wyoming counts nearly four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual vote in Texas. This is because Wyoming has 3 Electoral votes for a population of 493,782 and Texas has 32 Electoral votes for a population of over 20 million people. By dividing the population by Electoral votes, we can see that Wyoming has an 'elector' for every 165,000 people and Texas has an 'elector' for every 652,000 people" – hardly an example of the "one man, one vote" principle.

The winner-takes-all component of the Electoral College is perhaps that most systematically adverse to democracy. In the pre-voting stages of the process, the winner-takes-all system forces candidates for President to bombard the citizens of some states, while neglecting entirely the citizens in other states. For example, New York is a heavily democratic state. It is a foregone conclusion that the majority of citizens there will vote for the democratic Presidential candidate in the general election, which means that the democratic candidate will earn all of New York's Electoral votes. Thus, the democratic candidate does not need to campaign as heavily there, already assured of votes, and the republican candidate does not campaign much there assuming they will not obtain any of the Electoral votes. In contrast, electors in other states such as West Virginia, are up for grabs. West Virginia's electors voted for former President Bill Clinton (a democrat) in 1992 and 1996, but also voted for present President George W. Bush (a republican) in 2000 and 2004. As a result, both the democratic and republican candidates will campaign there a great deal.

This winner-takes-all system also reinforces the two-party system that developed early in American political history, but has been entrenched by the Electoral College. Third-parties that are not capable of winning the majority of the popular vote in a given state are essentially "spoilers" for one of the two major parties by decreasing their total popular vote count, throwing the electoral votes to their opponent. A cycle is created wherein people understand this, and thus are deterred from voting for a third-party candidate, even if the third-party candidate better represents their own political ideologies. In 1992, then Governor Bill Clinton was the democratic candidate, incumbent President George H.W. Bush was the republican nominee, and Ross Perot was running as a conservative independent. Perot earned 19,741,065 votes in the general election, and Bill Clinton unseated President Bush by just under six million votes. In the next election in 1996, President Clinton was the democratic incumbent, challenged by republican Senator Bob Dole, and Ross Perot ran as an independent again. This time Perot only earned 7,866,284 votes in the general election, which represents a 60% decrease in votes for the third-party candidate. An even greater decline in third-party votes is illustrated by Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate in 2000 and 2004. Nader earned 2,858,843 votes in the general election in 2000; (potentially) causing then Vice President Al Gore to lose to republican nominee George W. Bush by five Electoral votes, despite Gore winning the popular vote by approximately 500,000 ballots. Nader ran again in the 2004 Election, and earned only 240,896 votes, representing a 92% decrease compared with 2000 vote totals. Ultimately, American society loses the value of debate, diversity, and varying perspectives. The public conversation is missing valuable dialogue provided by alternate points of view.

As seen most recently in the 2000 Election, the winner-takes-all system allows for the winner of the popular vote to lose the election. This situation has occurred sixteen times since the founding of the Electoral College, and in each of the sixteen elections, more than half of the popular vote was actually against the candidate that was elected to the office of President. Additionally, with a total of 538 Electoral votes, it is possible that no candidate will win the required majority (270 votes), leaving the decision to the House of Representatives to elect the President and the Senate to elect the Vice-President.

There have been over 700 proposals over the past 200 years in Congress aimed at reforming or eliminating the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for a Constitutional Amendment regarding the Electoral College than any other single subject in American history. The United States is a representative democracy and the Electoral College is neither representative nor democratic. Most Americans do know who the presidential candidates are, and most Americans do not know their States' electors. Just as Protestants rejected the notion that a priest was needed to communicate with God, Americans reject the notion that we need electors to communicate our vote.

Hamilton wrote that, "we may safely pronounce that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration." We, the People, agree.