The Case for the Electoral College
Legislators in Illinois and Missouri are pondering legislation that would give their states’ electoral votes to the presidential candidate who won the most popular votes nationwide. The idea is to avoid a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, in which one candidate won the popular vote but the other candidate won in the electoral college.
The proposal is premised on the seemingly obvious idea that we’re a democracy, and in a democracy, the majority rules, right?
Well, not really. In fact, the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. And “majority rules” is not, and never has been, the basis of our system of government.
Consider the United States Senate. In the Senate, Wyoming’s half-million voters have the same amount of power as California’s 30 million voters. “Undemocratic?” Probably. A violation of “one man, one vote?” absolutely.
And there are lots of other examples. We have a Bill of Rights that prohibits the government from engaging in censorship, unreasonable searches, or torture, even if the majority of Congress wants to do these things. Those rules are enforced by the Supreme Court, about as undemocratic an institution as one can imagine. Even within the Senate, a minority of 41 Senators can bring legislation to a halt using a technique called the filibuster.
And if you want to change any of these requirements, you have to pass a constitutional amendment, a thoroughly undemocratic process that involves a 2/3 vote in each House of Congress and the approval of 3/4 of the states. In a more democratic nation, all you’d have to do to change the constitution would be to get a majority of Congress, or perhaps a majority of the popular vote in a referendum.
Why did the Founders set up such a crazy, undemocratic system? They could have set up a process more like the mother country. The British have a parliamentary system in which the House of Commons appoints the prime minister. They also have an unwritten constitution, which means that in theory, at least, a majority in parliament can change the law any time it likes. The House of Commons is not only more democratic than the American Congress, it’s arguably more efficient and more accountable, too.
The founders designed our federal system the way they did for an important reason: they believed a system of checks and balances was essential to preserving liberty. They wanted a system in which different branches of government represented different interests and responded to different political incentives. This purpose would be defeated if all three branches of government were elected by a majority vote, because then all three would be likely to reflect the short-term passions of the majority.
The electoral college also symbolizes another extremely important principle of our republic: federalism. Unlike many other nations, our states are not simply administrative districts of the federal government. They are sovereign entities that voluntarily joined together to form a nation. Just as the Bill of Rights prevents a majority of voters from using their power to the detriment of minorities, the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College ensures that the distinct concerns of each of the 50 states has a voice in the national decision-making process.
If Missouri adopted legislation that helped to effectively emasculate the electoral college, it would be encouraging future presidents to ignore the particular concerns of Missouri voters and and undermine the sovereignty of our state. The United States is not a democracy, it’s a federal constitutional republic. I think that’s an important principle, and I hope our elected officials don’t do anything to undermine it.