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The Electoral College: Rationale and Process

The Founding Fathers wanted to distinguish the newly formed United States from a pure democracy. The Framers defined democracy as government decisions made directly by the people. They decided to use a republic form of government because it promised wiser government. This type of government would allow decisions to be made by representatives elected by people. The one issue styled under this republican representation was the process on how to choose a president. This process has been the source of continuing controversy for over two hundred years.

There have been more attempts to change the twelfth amendment than any other provision in the Constitution. Ironically, in the debates preceding the ratification of the Constitution, the method of presidential selection was not very controversial. Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The mode of appointment of the chief magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence which has escaped without severe censure or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents” (Wright 56). Alexander Hamilton was the chief architect of the electoral college since he distrusted popular democracy.

He said that the electoral college would ensure that a few men of insight and reflection would select the ablest president. Specifically, he wrote, “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass would act under circumstances favorable to deliberation” (Wright 59). Hamilton believed that the electoral college system would reduce civic unrest if public participation were directed to certify the results of a presidential election. He noted that the electoral college concept was less susceptible to political manipulation.

However, the United States has moved away from the original republicanism rationale experienced by the Founding Fathers. Opponents of the electoral college, such as author Lawrence Longley state, “Today’s advancement in communications, computers, and polling computations has permitted our society to accept results the popular vote with confidence” (18). However, the question remains, has the electoral college outlived it original intent and purpose? I believe that we need the electoral college to alleviate future problems that are associated with direct vote presidential elections.

Moreover, we have used this system to select presidents since the early 1800’s while other methods have remained political theory. The function of the electoral college is to elect the presidents and vice-presidents of the United States. The Constitution (Article 2, Section 1) provides that each state shall appoint as many presidential electors as the state has members of Congress. Three is the smallest number of electors a state may have, since every state has two senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives.

According to the Constitution and federal law, each state may appoint presidential electors by whatever means they wish. After the electors have been chosen, they meet in their state capitals to cast their ballots. The only constitutional restriction is that an elector may vote for only one candidate who is a resident of the same state of the elector. To be elected president or vice-president, a candidate must receive a majority of all the electoral votes cast. If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president from among the three candidates receiving the highest number of electoral votes.

If the House of Representatives must make a choice, each state receives one vote and a majority of the states must agree on a single candidate. When no candidate for vice-president receives a majority, the Senate then chooses the vice-president from the other two highest candidates. Each senator has one vote and a vice-president candidate receiving the majority of the votes in the Senate wins. In practice, the presidential electors are chosen through the political parties. Each party in each state nominates a slate of presidential electors for that state.

The result is that one party wins all or none of a state’s electoral votes. The electors are expected to vote for their own party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates, although occasionally an elector has voted for someone else. The choosing of electors by slates makes it difficult for a third party to challenge the major parties unless it has strength in a number of large electoral states. Constitutional scholars have been struggling to understand the theory behind the electoral college. Michael Glennon has research the origins of the twelfth amendment for many years.

He has concluded that, “Many Constitutional Delegates voted for the system only because they believed that few presidential candidates would ever command a sufficient national following to win a majority of the electoral college votes” (7). Being such, the choice of president was thought to almost always fall to the Congress. The projection was wrong; only twice in American history has Congress been called upon to pick the president. The present system provides a winner-take-all method of electing presidential candidates. This method awards all of the state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the majority of electoral votes.

This gives an advantage to states with large numbers of electoral votes, such as California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. These five states constitute 61 percent of the 270 electoral votes required for election. These numbers mandate that presidential candidates need to actively solicit support from these states. This encourages greater political favoritism and recognition for these large electoral states. This is one reason the electoral college has not been modified or abolished; the majority of these elected representatives have thwarted any attempts of reform that could curtail their influence.

Adversaries of the current system complain that a victory for a candidate does not guarantee that candidate has the most popular votes. According to an article written by Fred Barbash in the Washington Post, “The electoral college is a time bomb waiting to explode, if more than two strong candidates run for president and no one receives a majority of electoral votes then the decision would be in the hands of the faceless party favorites customarily nominated to the electoral college. ” Another charge is that the present system produces inequalities in popular voting power.

It is believed the minority voters in each state are denied their political right to expand meaningful alliances across state lines. Their contention is that the minority votes are misappropriated and given to the majority voters of each state. The electoral college’s winner-take-all rule, is responsible for this inequity. This happens in a three-way race in which candidate A receives 40 percent of the popular vote; candidate B, 35 percent; and candidate C, 25 percent. Candidate A receives 100 percent of the electoral votes, therefore, 60 percent of the people in the state are disenfranchised.

Supporters of the direct election, cite other benefits, such as; It would eliminate the potential problem of faithless electoral college electors; strengthen and encourage two-party elections; and stimulate greater voter interest and participation. Although the proponents of the direct election plan appear to have a strong case against the existing system, the appearance is not the reality. The nation may be better advised to follow advice of George Washington, “Experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of [a] constitution” (Best 30).

Direct elections could produce a candidate without a majority, this would lead to run-off elections to determine a winner. Moreover, the critics’ objection to the present system is that it may give us a President who is not the choice of a majority, but a plurality of the voters. One opponent of the current system maintains, “We are a people governed by majorities; yet under the electoral law, the popular vote may be on the side of the defeated candidate” (Beman 57). However, the advantage of the electoral count system is that it magnifies the winner with regards to a plurality victory.

Moreover, proponents of the direct vote system are unwilling to limit the number of candidates or elections. This produces a problem of having more than two candidates on the ballot reducing the likelihood that anyone of them will poll a majority. Electoral college reformists, like Lawrence Longley state, “The system is fatally flawed. We [electoral college electors] should not be in a position to decide upon who should be elected president” (24). These complaints arise because the college emphasizes concentration on states with large amounts of electoral votes that diminish smaller states influences.

Daniel Orthena writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated, “A direct vote would remove the pressure and diffuse concentrated efforts to secure pivotal large electoral states. ” However, what is not considered is that the existing system creates advantages for particular groups of voters (usually located in large states), which have a bearing on public policy and its formulation. The Presidency has been sensitive to minority interests because the parties have perceived the ethnic-minorities advantage and take it into consideration in selecting candidates and issues.

Moreover, smaller states are still required to achieve an electoral majority and, if overlooked, could put the election into the House of Representatives. The faithless elector problem is small and could be eliminated if political parties exercised care in selecting their nominees for the college (Best 166). Fraud is a problem for all electoral systems and is even more threatening in a close election. There is reason to believe that the direct election method would increase rather than reduce the dangers of fraud, because it would increase the number of close elections.

Under the direct election system, fraud might occur in two elections, the general election and the run-off. The consequences of the existing system are known and reassuring. However, the consequences of the direct election plan are not known and must be considered as theoretical speculation. Consequently, the direct vote advocates would strengthen and encourage the two-party system. The direct popular vote would force smaller third party candidates to campaign throughout the country and not to concentrate solely on large electoral states.

This process would actually defeat minority parties to a greater extent than the current system. Finally, voter apathy has been viewed as a negative factor of the electoral college. Any electoral system should produce a definite winner and avoid prolonged contests and disputes that create public turmoil. Our present electoral system passes this test, partly because of the electoral rules and partly because of customs. Moreover, an electoral system should preserve the prestige, power, and potential for leadership of the office of President.

Under its rules, the Presidency has become the focal point of the government. It has grown and developed to a degree that would have astounded the Founders (Berns 67). There are documented instances were direct election votes for presidents of other democratic countries were fraudulent. In 1988, the PAN party of Mexico lost to the 60 year incumbent PRI party. The PAN party was assured a victory with 68 percent of the vote before the government announced that the PRI won by 50. 1 percent. An electoral college would of eliminated the illegal results and permit transition of power to the opposition party.

Also, a similar situation occurred in the 1986 Philippine presidential election. However, millions of Philippines took to the streets and the threat of civil war lead to the deposing of then President Ferdinand Marcos. Over the years, the United States has benefited from a two-party system, which the electoral college encourages. Only in ten presidential elections has there been more than two serious candidates, most recently in 1968, 1980, and 1992. The Framers knew that an absolute majority would not be as crucial to governing as a sufficient plurality that was distributed geographically.

The electoral college converts a strong plurality into victory, without the expense and political instability that may come with run-off elections. In 1860, the third-party candidate and one term congressman, Abraham Lincoln, garnered just under 40 percent of the popular vote but received 60 percent of the electoral votes. History now shows us that Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. This might not of been the case if the direct vote method was used. The Founding Fathers wanted separated federal powers to protect individual states’ rights through a checks and balances system.

This is confirmed by their adoption of a bicameral government that are equal to each other. As any new citizen learns before becoming naturalized, we are a democratic republic, not primarily a democracy. There is no perfect electoral system that is immune to manipulation. Every system can produce unintended results. The electoral college system has its full share of flaws. As Madison wrote, “There are objections against every mode that has been, or perhaps can be proposed” (Wright 110). The issue of the electoral college cannot be purely based on absolute merit.

It should be judged on comparative merit with the comparison of other alternative systems. Unfortunately, a change would produce unknown effects that could reverberate through our political system. This is why John F. Kennedy opposed abolition of the electoral college. He said, “It is not only the unit vote for the Presidency we are talking about, but a whole solar system of governmental power. If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements of the solar system, it is necessary to consider the others. Glennon 72).

Much contemplation has been focused on solutions to resolve the perceived electoral college problems. However, too often these reformers ignore the rest of the political solar system. Their reforms vary because each have different objectives. These varying objectives are hoped to reinforce the values of federalism, to increase voters enthusiasm of national politics, lessen the danger of a national recount, strengthen (or weaken) the two-party system, or to elect better presidents.

Each of these proposed reforms have some ramifications on our political solar system. Today, Americans take pride in our history of peaceful transitions of power. Being so, the electoral college must be considered as a valuable centerpiece to this transition. It is reassuring to know that a handful of average citizens delegated responsibility by their states have been able to achieve what Mexico and the Philippines have not, undisputed electoral results derived from the popular vote. The electoral college has proven to be our political stability.

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