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Homespun Symposium: Electoral College


Question—"Is it time for the U.S. to end the Electoral College? If so, in favor of what alternative system? If not, why is it still relevant and beneficial to the nation?"*

eighing the alternatives, from several of the more plausible ones all the way up to a few of the most extreme, should put the current system of choosing our president into its proper perspective. The nature of the presidency itself sheds light on the reasons for favoring that particular system over others.

As part of a republican form of government, rather than a purely democratic one, the executive is subject to the same underlying principle which governs its two coequal branches: namely, that the people's representatives, not the people themselves, finalize all decisions of our government. This is because of the sheer impracticality of holding numerous, nationwide referenda on those decisions—a procedure both cumbersome and lengthy, and a process prone to unwarranted delays and an inherent rigidness which affords little chance of timely adjustment or correction of especially urgent decisions.

Instead, for deciding every governmental act, we have set up a body of intermediators democratically chosen by and representing the people of all the states, respectively. In the case of the legislative branch, those intermediators are members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who bicamerally decide each act of making law:

People (districts)>Representatives>Act
People1 (states)>Senators

In the case of the executive branch, the intermediators are electors who decide each act of executing law. Except that this act is essentially one person vested with all executive powers, so as to ensure a continuity and firmness of energy and purpose which any effective head of state and civil commander of a nation's armed forces requires:

People2 (states)>Electors>President

However, in the judiciary branch's case the President and the Senate together decide each act of interpreting law—that is, a single judge whose power to decide cases, vested for life, helps shape the meaning of the law:

People (states)>Senators>Judge

Each such intermediator between the people and their government's legislative, executive, and judicial acts is ultimately answerable to them at regular intervals at the ballot box. Moreover, the process as a whole has evolved into a more democratic one, while the structure itself remains entirely republican.

We the people have chosen this form of government, as expressed by our federal constitution, reserving always the right to choose another if we so desire. We also approved a procedure for altering the current one by way of constitutional amendment, which we followed to ratify each of the 27 amendments we have today. Should we do so now to alter or abolish the Electoral College System?

Before paving this particular new road with good intentions we probably should ask ourselves what are the alternatives to that system? Some of the plausible and implausible ones include:

Nationwide popular vote
For fans of a democratic form of government on a national scale, it's The Bomb. Advantages are that any recounts would be conducted all across the country rather than just in a single state like Florida or a few of its counties; practically every election will require a run-off; candidates will need to campaign only in four or five major cities and can happily ignore the rest of the country—wait. Sorry, those are probably all disadvantages. The advantages then are that...well, some...ok, uh. Oh, I know! All those anarchists out there will finally pipe down because there will be enough complete, unbridled chaos every four years to really give them something to smile about. This may be referred to as the Goodbye Republican Form of Government, Hello Demagogues System—or more simply, the Hilldabeast System.

Congressional-district voting
Whoever wins a congressional district, either by majority or plurality of the votes, gets the one electoral vote for that district. The winner of the statewide vote takes the two electoral votes for that state. Advantage is that moderate anarchists will be happy because, while it only approximates the popular-vote results, it maintains much of the calamity associated with numerous, widespread recounts. Nonetheless, this is not really an alternative since states already have the constitutional authority to go with this option (as Maine and Nebraska have done)—although a constitutional amendment could make it mandatory. Call it the Electoral College Lite System.

Worldwide voting
Since France and other alleged nations are so eager to participate in our elections, claiming their citizens should have an equal say over who we choose as our leaders, why not expand the eligibility requirements so every person in the world 18 years of age or older may cast a ballot? Just think, we'd have billions instead of mere millions of votes to count. All recounts could take years if not decades. Chinese citizens would finally get to vote in their first democratic election ever. "Kumbaya, My Statism, Kumbaya" would become our national anthem! The disadvantage—at least to America's nonliberals—is that our country would cease to be a sovereign nation. This may be known as the al-Qerry Ultimate Appeasement System.

Proportional nonplurality weighted popular vote with preferential point-count bonus primaries and approval-based instant runoff
Don't worry, I don't know what it means either. Just call this one the Huh? System and let's moveon.

A few alternatives that do away with popular voting altogether are:

Congress chooses
Under this system, either each state's delegation gets one vote or every representative and senator does. Since there wouldn't be a separation of powers any more between the legislative and executive branches, you can accurately call it a Parliamentary System. Oh, you'd probably have to call the commander-in-chief Mr./Ms. Prime Minister, also.

Duel at 5,000 paces
Name this one the Miller-Matthews Electoral System, in honor of the famous verbal exchange on MSNBC. Here, the one challenged (incumbent or candidate from incumbent's party) gets to shoot first. The candidate duelist still standing wins. If both miss, they close the distance by half. Repeat until there's a winner. In the event there are third-party candidates, you could have seeded matches and eliminations just like in tennis. Would probably get higher ratings than any Wimbledon too.

The advantage is that the president will be an excellent shot, which may allow us to decrease the Secret Service's budget somewhat (and thus help reduce the deficit). The disadvantage is that each loser likely won't be a viable candidate for the next election duel.

Karl Rove granted absolute authority to pick winner
With this system—oh, that's right. This is a discussion about systems we aren't using now. Nevermind...I mean, Mmmwahha hahaha hahha!

King/Queen of Great America and Outlying Areas
This is the Been There Done That System. If we want to go back to it, but this time make sure some sort of popular voting is involved, perhaps we could allow the people to choose the wife/husband of the prince/princess when the latter reaches marrying age.

Variations of several of these alternatives are described by Paul "Not The Bluegrass Fiddler" Kienitz in his article Options for Electoral College Reform.

The system our nation has been using for two centuries to ensure the peaceful succession of power (if you exclude Florida 2000) will remain in place until there can be found a better alternative that meets with the approval of two-thirds of each house of Congress and three-quarters of all the states. It is unlikely that even the most plausible ones mentioned or linked here could gain such approval anytime soon.

Then what's so great about the current system? For one thing, if you prefer a federal instead of a unitary government then the Electoral College is the best way to go. It gives the people of every state a real say-so in choosing who represents all the states in our nation's highest office. The voices of rural and small-town voters aren't drowned out by those of suburban and urban voters. It precludes a concentration of power in any of our densely populated Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The president's constituency is therefore more broad and binds him to all parts of our country rather than to just our largest cities.

Second, the Electoral College incorporates and balances the need for a regular, periodic popular vote with our standing choice to preserve a representative democracy. It accomplishes the latter by minimizing those "little arts of popularity" often associated with the former. As Ann Coulter exquisitely points out:

It should come as no surprise that Hillary [al-Qlinton] opposes the Electoral College. Alexander Hamilton explained that the whole point of the Electoral College was to interpose "every practicable obstacle" to "cabal, intrigue and corruption." The roundabout method of choosing a president imposed by the Constitution was intended to frustrate "the adversaries of republican government" and prevent them from gaining "an improper ascendant in our councils." . . .

Indeed, the current crisis foisted on the nation by Al Gore [i.e., Florida 2000] illustrates with some clarity the sort of mischief the Electoral College sought to prevent. The late Yale law professor Alexander Bickel argued that by tallying presidential votes state by state, the Electoral College would isolate the effect of voter fraud in any one state, legitimizing the election results.

If the entire raw national total were up for grabs, the whole country would have to be initiated into the Chicago vote-stealing customs now being introduced in Florida.

Banana republics such as France have direct presidential voting, which has led to their foisting on the whole world all manner of corrupting ills such as Jacque ChIraq. Thankfully, the Electoral College readily pulverizes these foisterous attempts.

Third, because a candidate must receive a majority of all electoral votes to be elected, the Electoral College is itself an entirely democratic institution. In the event no candidate receives such majority, the House of Representatives—another democratic institution—"choose[s] immediately, by ballot, the President," with each state's delegation having one vote. The latter is much more certain and less complex than any instant-runoff method proposed with the Hilldabeast System.

Fourth, the Electoral College is flexible enough to allow practically any method of appointing electors—popular vote, selection by state legislature, flip of the coin, tea leaves, etc.—without the need for a constitutional amendment. That's because, under our Constitution, state legislatures have plenary powers to direct which method their states respectively use. Indeed, in Gore v. Everyone with any Functioning Brain Cells (2000), the U.S Supreme Court held that a state legislature "may, if it so chooses, select the electors itself." Of course, the people of every state are going to get their say here, too. Since each member of a state legislature is still answerable to his constituents, they probably wouldn't look too kindly on him, come election time, if he had ever proposed or voted in favor of that tea-leaves method.

Finally, our Electoral College System does not exist in a vacuum, independent of the constant, competing forces of democracy and republicanism, of state sovereignty and federalism, which our Constitution works everywhere else to balance for the good of the people. Even the number of electors are equal to the number of House and Senate members—while at the same time no House or Senate member or anyone "holding an office of trust or profit under the United States" may be an elector. The presidency is permanent, while the body whose duty it is to elect our presidents isn't, existing only for a matter of weeks and completely dissolving once that duty is done. In this task the electors are our representatives, appointed by us through the democratic process. Although our state legislatures, whose members are also elected by us, have sole power to alter that method of appointment, they have always used such power to make it more democratic. It is precisely these checks and balances which ensure that the election of our nation's president is both peaceful and orderly and results in elevating to her highest office a natural born citizen who can and will "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

As a refresher for liberals, Florida Supreme Court judges, and anyone else who hasn't read our Constitution in a while, its relevant provisions as they were originally written are:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves....The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed....

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States. (Art. II, Sec. 1)

An amendment requiring separate votes for President and Vice President was ratified in 1804, and another enfranchising the residents of the District of Columbia was ratified in 1961:

The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves....The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.... (Amend. XII)

The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct: A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment. (Amend. XXIII, Sec. 1)

By law, the time of choosing electors is "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November" in every year evenly divisible by four. (3 USC 1; e.g., Nov. 2, 2004) The day on which the electors give their votes is "the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment." (3 USC 7; e.g., Dec. 13, 2004) Shown in the table below is the number of electoral votes each state presently has:

55 California
34 Texas
31 New York
27 Florida
21 Illinois
21 Pennsylvania
20 Ohio
17 Michigan
15 Georgia
15 New Jersey
15 North Carolina
13 Virginia
12 Massachusetts
11 Indiana
11 Missouri
11 Tennessee
11 Washington
10 Arizona
10 Maryland
10 Minnesota
10 Wisconsin
South Carolina
New Mexico
West Virginia
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
North Dakota
South Dakota

All but two states use the winner-take-all method, where the candidate with the highest popular vote statewide receives the state's entire slate of electors, each pledged to vote for him. Consequently, the least number of states a candidate needs to win to be elected president is eleven—i.e, California through North Carolina above, which together possess 271 of the total 538 electoral votes. Also, any candidate who wins 41 or more states clinches the election.

In light of these ways in which the current system promotes our best interests, more so than even the most plausible alternative, it is still relevant and beneficial to the nation.


  1. Before 1913, each state's legislature chose its two senators.
  2. Under our Constitution, state legislatures have power to direct how electors are chosen and appointed.

* What started out to be just my two or three paragraph response which I originally intended, quickly grew beyond all sensible proportion after I began researching this subject and finding out several things about it I didn't know before. As a result, I missed the Wednesday evening deadline to have this answer linked alongside those at Homespun Bloggers.

Please check out all the links there for some really great answers.

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