Debate Club

The Electoral College Defends Liberty in Ways Direct Democracy Doesn't

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Before deciding against the Electoral College, every American should understand two things about our system of government. First, America's not a democracy. It's a representative republic. The only place in our federal government where "one person equals one vote" is the House of Representatives.

It's not "equal" that California and Rhode Island each have two senators. California has close to 38 million residents; Rhode Island has about 1 million. This means that a person from Rhode Island has about 38 times more representation in the Senate than a Californian. Should we also abolish the Senate?

What about the Supreme Court? Have you even tried to calculate its democratic equality? Hint: It's awful. Ironically, this profoundly "undemocratic" institution also happens to be the most trusted branch of government.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Let's be clear: the greatest violence that's been done to the American people on the "democracy" score has been the decades of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. These bipartisan incumbent protection plans have made sure that the House represents the majority position of the majority party rather than the majority sentiment of the American people.

Second, the framers in crafting the Constitution sought to promote two major principles: separation of powers and federalism. In short, government's power should be divided horizontally across the three national branches and vertically between Washington and the states. This competition for power would foster a system of "checks and balances," protecting individual liberty and undermining tyrannies. By staggering elections, setting different term lengths, forging different geographical districts, and designing different modes of selection, the framers sought to ensure officeholders would represent "the people" as American citizens and residents of a state. Accordingly, the Constitution "is neither wholly federal nor wholly national."

And this is where the Electoral College fits into our American system and defends liberty in ways that direct democracy does not, despite the fact that the framers imagined that it would operate differently than it does today.

[See photos from the 2012 Presidential Campaign Trail.]

How does it work? Like the World Series, you must win games (states), not merely runs (people). There's not a single election for president, but 51 elections, including the District of Columbia. According to Alexander Hamilton, this "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." If a baseball team were forced to play 51 games, wouldn't we all agree that the team that won the majority of those games would be the "better" team? Generally, this is what the Electoral College does: It forces presidential candidates to win both people (runs in a single game) and states (the majority of games). This makes the president an able representative of the United States of America, who is tasked with balancing national and federal interests.

More problematically, is the notion that the national popular vote is imbued with meaning. No candidate tries to win it because that's not how the game is won. As such, past national popular vote totals don't make for a legitimate argument against the Electoral College's four supposed "failures" (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000). The popular vote totals mostly arose as a by-product of each presidential candidate's electoral vote strategy. It's nearly impossible to speculate what the national popular vote would have been had the presidential candidates tried to win it.

And even if one does look to 2000, the problem was not the Electoral College, but the closeness of the election. Had we used a national popular vote to determine the president, we still might not have one.

[See the 12 Biggest Donors of the 2012 Election.]


Gore earned only about 500,000 votes more than Bush, and there were about 100 million ballots cast that day. The two candidates were 0.5 percent apart, which also happens to be the threshold level set by many states for an "automatic recount." And as any statistician knows, when one is counting 100 million ballots, the law of large numbers tells us that a recount is not likely to be a more accurate count, only a different count. The Electoral College confines voting controversies to the states, and allows for a more orderly counting of ballots than would likely occur if votes were aggregated and finalized nationally.

But even aside from the practical concerns and circling back to this issue of representation, Gore's popular vote margin came from earning 1.3 million more votes than Bush in California. Should Californians have been able to "overrule" the rest of country and install their overwhelming favorite in the presidency?

The Electoral College not only supports the "checks and balances" in our system, but ensures that our elections don't devolve into chaotic legal battles between the parties.

As Alexander Hamilton explained, if "it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for."

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  • Lara Brown

    About Lara Brown Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University

    Electoral College
    2012 presidential election

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