Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Electoral College: Let's Get the History Right

The Electoral College was back in the news the other day. Eleven electors, pledged to Barack Obama, recently appeared in the capitol city and cast all eleven votes for Obama.

I hear a lot of comments about the Electoral College and why it was set up by our Founding Fathers. Many of the remarks discussing the historical reasons miss the mark. Some proponents of the Electoral College assert proudly it is working exactly as the Founders intended. Actually that's far from true. Alexander Hamilton wrote Federalist Paper No. 68 explaining why the delegates to the convention adopted the Electoral College:
"It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. 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 investigations.

"It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place."
Hamilton continues on with my favorite part of Federalist Paper #68:

"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. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. 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."
I think after nearly 220 years of Presidential history we can conclude that Hamilton's assurance the the EC would result in the Presidency being filled by people with "ability and virtue" turned out not be well off the mark.

As Hamilton illustrates, the Electoral College was established by our Founding Fathers quite simply because they did not believe the average person was wise enough to make a decision about who should be President. They expected the electors to be an enlightened body of men (sorry, no women then) who would make a detached, wise decision on who would be President. They expected them to deliberate on who would be the best President, certainly not just ratify the popular vote in that particular state. Further, the Founders expected that elections would often be thrown into the House of Representatives (another body the Founders called "enlightened") because no Presidential candidate had a majority of the electoral votes. They did not envision the development of the two party system which has almost always assured that the winning presidential candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes.

The Electoral College has had a lot of unintended positive effects, not the least of which is that it forces the Presidential candidates to campaign in less-populated states they might otherwise ignore. Another positive effect in my opinion is that should a recount happen, it would be isolated to a state or two instead of the recount be subject to every precinct in the United States.

I could probably think of several more good reasons for the Electoral College. But to say it is operating exactly as the Founders intended, well that could not be further from the truth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No, things are not working out as the founding fathers inteneded. Even the checks and balances have not worked since the "checks" are as corrupt as the "balances".