The Electoral College was an elitist institution designed to keep populist buffoons out of the Presidency.
You have never voted for president and probably never will. When you “vote for president,” you are actually voting for these electors who are tasked with choosing the president. To modern ears, the Electoral College sounds like a mockery of democracy. The people speak, but the Electoral College has the right to silent their voices. That’s right, but that’s the point. But it much the same way, the Supreme Court retains the right to veto unconstitutional democratic legislation, while the U.S. Congress has the power to impeach and remove a popular president.
The Electoral College, like the Senate and Bill of Rights, is an undemocratic institution carefully crafted to preserve the vertical division of political power among the national government, the states and the people to prevent the tyranny of the majority.
Why we Have an Electoral College
The United States is not, and was never intended to be, a democracy. It was not intended to have major national decisions made by popular vote. It was not intended to have power centralized in one federal body, but dispersed among the states. Not only was this country never intended to be a democracy, but we should not want it to be one. Would we want the decision to go to war to be made by majority vote? Or the decision of who sits on the Supreme Court for life? Or which groups have the full rights of citizenship and which do not? If slavery and segregation where decided by the concept of “one person, one vote” in the states where they were practiced, they would have never been abolished. So yes, we want our government to reflect the popular will. But we do not want the government to be directly controlled by it in all cases. And we should not change how our government operates based solely on the idea of majority rule.
One of the most important political decisions made in this county is the election of the President, who is the most powerful person in the country (and now the world). With good reason, the writers of the U.S. Constitution did not trust the public with this decision, and its why they created the Electoral College as an anti-democratic institution to serve as a check on majority rule. In its original formulation, it was supposed to be a body of electors, or “representatives” directly elected with the sole purpose of making the choice of who is president, similar to how we elect representatives in Congress to vote on laws on our behalf. It was also intended that the electors make their vote for president using their own independent judgement.
There were several reasons for this, and they were very clearly explained by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper 68. The most important was ensuring that the decision to elect the president was made by a body with the required judgement and knowledge to make an informed decision. Said Hamilton:
“A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated [tasks]”
This would be done to ensure that only people truly qualified to be President would be elected, and that they were the type to be trusted with the awesome responsibilities of the office. And to keep away someone with a talent for manipulating popular sentiment for their own political ambition, to the detriment of the country.
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.. . . . It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.
Such an anti-democratic system would have likely prevented the election of someone like Donald Trump to the presidency, who had no experience in government and whose chief qualification was the ability to rile up a grievance-filled base. And it would have allowed for a more thorough scrutinizing of his background and temperament without the influence of outside political pressures and the need to ensure re-election.
Another reason was to prevent foreign intrigue and corruption from influencing the process. This was proven necessary during the 2016 election, when the Russian government engaged in an online campaign to influence voter preferences.
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.
It also had the advantage of preventing corruption, since a body that only exists for two months consisting of people holding no other office is not easy to influence.
No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. . . .Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means.
Our current system is different than this ideal. Each state government is free to decide on how electors are selected; the Constitution does not specify this. The assumption of the Founders was that electors would be voted on, by name, in different districts, similar to congressional districts. This was mostly how they were selected until the late 19th century. In other words, the people did not place the name of a candidate for a president on the ballot, instead they voted for their local elector, whom they trusted later to cast a responsible vote for president.
What happens now is that when someone casts a vote for the presidential candidate, what is actually being voted on is a slate of electors pledged to vote for that particular candidate. In 21 states, electors have the legal right to vote for whomever they choose. In the other states, the law requires electors to vote for their pledged candidate, known as “faithless elector” laws. This means that electors do not act on their own independent judgement. It also means that electors are heavily influenced by party insiders, and are more then likely insiders themselves, subject to the corruption and intrigue that it entails.
If the goal is to prevent unqualified, corrupt, and demagogic candidates from gaining the presidency, our current system abjectly failed. Electors might have a presumptive duty to represent their states, which often means what the state majority wants rather than what they personally judge is best. It should be the goal of the majority to elect a viable candidate president, but the electors should be empowered to stop this if they do not. In 2016, some Republican electors in Texas and Georgia threatened to not support Trump, even if Trump won their state. One Georgian elector, Baoky Vu, said that Trump “…lacks the judgment, temperament and gravitas to lead this nation.” She was later forced to resign as an elector.
Pledging electors to the result of a national popular vote would make the situation even worse. The assumption behind this idea is that in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have been elected if the national popular vote had been followed, so this is the system we should switch to. Without going over all of the disadvantages of this system again, it is incorrect to assume Clinton would have won the popular vote. In a majority vote system, candidates would compete for votes all across the country. That means Republicans would compete in Democratic strongholds like California and New York and come away with substantial percentages of the vote. We forget that we are not far removed from a Republican Governor of California, and Republicans regularly win elected office in both states. And even if we have a baked in Democratic majority, this would only serve to further inflame political tensions and it would mean that whoever the Democratic candidate for president is, no matter how unfit, would win. And if that candidate happens to be very charismatic and good at exploiting people’s grievances, there would be no backstop to turn to.
The great challenge for the government of a free nation is how to balance majority rule with minority rights, and to ensure that the people entrusted with power by the majority are trustworthy. The Constitution incorporates several deliberately undemocratic components to accomplish this. One component is the Bill of Rights, which limits the government’s ability to make certain laws even if a majority wants them. Another such undemocratic institution is the Senate, where every state regardless of size has two votes. The Electoral College, if returned to its un-democratic roots, is another. It would restrain the power of the majority and would make sure that the choice of who is to be the most powerful man on earth is made wisely.