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Why Keep the Electoral College?

What Were the Founding Fathers Thinking?

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Ben Franklin
Rischgitz/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Under the Electoral College system, it is possible for a presidential candidate to lose the nationwide popular vote, yet be elected president of the United States by winning in only a handful of key states. Should you ever forget this fact, critics of the Electoral College will be sure to remind you of it every four years.

What could the Founding Fathers -- the framers of the Constitution -- have been thinking in 1787? Did they not realize that the Electoral College system effectively took the power to select the American president of out of the hands of the American people? Yes, they did. In fact, the Founders always intended that the states -- not the people -- select the president.

Also See: Electoral College: Why Does it Work This Way?

Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants the power to elect the president and vice president to the states through the Electoral College system. Under the Constitution, the highest-ranking U.S. officials elected by direct popular vote of the people are the governors of the states.

Beware the Tyranny of the Majority

To be brutally honest, the Founding Fathers gave the American public of their day little credit for political awareness when it came to selecting the president. Here are some of their telling statements from the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
"A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union, and acting in concert, to delude them into any appointment." -- Delegate Gerry, July 25, 1787

"The extent of the country renders it impossible, that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates." -- Delegate Mason, July 17, 1787

"The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men." -- Delegate Gerry, July 19, 1787
The Founding Fathers had seen the dangers of placing ultimate power into a single set of human hands. Accordingly, they feared that placing unlimited power to elect the president into the politically naive hands of the people could lead to a "tyranny of the majority." In response, they created the Electoral College system as a process to insulate the selection of the president from the whims of the public.

Also See: An Alternative: The National Popular Vote Plan

Preserving Federalism
The Founding Fathers also felt the Electoral College system would enforce the concept of federalism -- the division and sharing of powers between the state and national governments.

Under the Constitution, the people are empowered to choose, through direct popular election, the men and women who represent them in their state legislatures and in the United Sates Congress. The states, through the Electoral College, are empowered to choose the president and vice president.

Are We a Democracy or Not?

Critics of the Electoral College system argue that by taking the selection of the president out of the hands of the public at large, that Electoral College system flies in the face of democracy. America is, after all, a democracy, is it not? Let's see.

Two of the most widely recognized forms of democracy are:
  • Pure or Direct Democracy -- All decisions are made directly by a majority vote of all eligible citizens. By their vote alone, citizens can enact laws and select or remove their leaders. The power of the people to control their government is unlimited.
  • Representative Democracy -- The citizens rule through representatives who they elect periodically in order to keep them accountable. The power of the people to control their government is thus limited by the actions of their elected representatives.
The United States is a representative democracy operated under a "republican" form of government as provided for in Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution which states, "The United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of Government..." (This should not be confused with the Republican political party which is merely named after the form of government.)

In 1787, the Founding Fathers, based on their direct knowledge of history showing that unlimited power tends to become tyrannical power, created the United States as a republic -- not a pure democracy.

The Founders were unanimous in their desire that no single entity, be it the people or an agent of the government be given unlimited power. Achieving a "separation of powers" ultimately became their highest priority.

As a part of their plan to separate powers and authority, the Founders created the Electoral College as method by which the people could choose their highest government leader - the president -- while avoiding at least some of the dangers of a direct election.

But just because the Electoral College has worked just as the Founding Fathers intended for over 200 years does not mean that it should never be modified or even abandoned completely. What will it take for either to happen?

What Would it Take to Change the Electoral College System?

Any change to the way in which America chooses its president will require a constitutional amendment. For this to come about, the following will have to happen:

First, the fear must become reality. That is, a presidential candidate must lose the nationwide popular vote, but be elected through the Electoral College vote. This has happened exactly three times in the nation's history:
  • In 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, with 4,036,298 popular votes won 185 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes, but won only 184 electoral votes. Hayes was elected president.
  • In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison, with 5,439,853 popular votes won 233 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote with 5,540,309 votes, but won only 168 electoral votes. Harrison was elected president.
  • In 2000, Republican George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore by a margin of 50,996,582 to 50,456,062. But after the U.S. Supreme Court halted vote recounts in Florida, George W. Bush was awarded the state's 25 electoral votes and won the presidency through a 271 to 266 vote margin in the Electoral College.
It is sometimes reported that Richard M. Nixon received more popular votes in the 1960 election than winner John F. Kennedy, but official results showed Kennedy with 34,227,096 popular votes to Nixon's 34,107,646. Kennedy won 303 Electoral College votes to Nixon's 219 votes.

Next, a candidate that loses the popular vote but wins the electoral vote must turn out to be a particularly unsuccessful and unpopular president. Otherwise, the impetus to blame the nation's woes on the Electoral College system will never materialize.

Finally, the constitutional amendment must get a two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress and be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Even if all of the above were to happen, it remains highly unlikely that the Electoral College system would be changed or repealed.

Under the above circumstances, it is probable that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would hold a strong majority of seats in Congress. Requiring a two-thirds vote from both houses, a constitutional amendment must have strong bi-partisan support -- support it will not get from a split Congress. (The president cannot veto a constitutional amendment.)

To be ratified and become effective, a constitutional amendment must also be approved by the legislatures of 39 out of the 50 states. By design, the Electoral College system grants the states the power to elect the president of the United States. How likely is it that 39 states are going to vote to give up that power? Moreover, 12 states control 53 percent of the votes in the Electoral College, leaving only 38 states that might even consider ratification.

Come on critics, can you really say that in 213 years of operation, the Elector College system has produced bad results? Only twice have the electors stumbled and been unable to choose a president, thus throwing the decision into the House of Representatives. Who did the House decide on in those two cases? Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.

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