Mind the Founders: Electoral College still has a vital role to play
December 31, 2016 12:00 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Protesters demonstrate ahead of Pennsylvania's 58th Electoral College at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
By the Editorial Board
The Founding Fathers labored diligently to write a Constitution that balanced competing interests, including those of North and South, those of smaller and larger states and those of various economic sectors. Unable to foresee the future, they nonetheless crafted a system that has managed those differences and new ones while guiding America’s growth from tenuous republic to global superpower.
Now, some of those upset with the outcome of the presidential election want to eliminate the college, which apportions voting power for president among the states, or contrive an end-run around it. They claim that the college cost Hillary Clinton, who received nearly 2.9 million more popular votes than Donald Trump, the election. They contend the people’s will was thwarted.
It would set a dangerous precedent to throw out a time-tested part of the government because one group — or “faction,” as George Washington would have said — no longer finds it convenient. The Constitution has gravitas that grounds the nation and promotes a long-term view, dissuading knee-jerk reactions to political events. That’s why it has been amended only 27 times, with a handful of other proposed amendments falling short of ratification.
The college was designed as a compromise between popular election of the president and election by political elites. It was a matter of controversy as early as 1824, when Andrew Jackson won more popular votes and college votes than John Quincy Adams but failed to secure enough college votes to win the election. That threw the decision to the House of Representatives, which gave the presidency to Adams in what Jackson’s supporters famously labeled a “corrupt bargain.”
The nation survived that election. It will this time, too.
Each state has a number of electors equal to its number of U.S. representatives and senators, a figure, in turn, based on the state’s population. The District of Columbia has three electors, bringing the college-wide total to 538. Most states have a “winner-take-all” system, in which the state awards all of its electoral votes to the candidate who garners the most popular votes there. Today, a presidential candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to win the election.
Detractors say the college distorts political reality — for example, giving proportionally more voting power to Wyoming, with three votes and about 586,000 people, than California, with 55 votes and about 38.8 million people. Why, they say, should less-populous states dictate to the more-populous or why should one state’s voting power carry more weight than another’s?
But the alternative — election of the president strictly by popular vote — would be no improvement. Why should a handful of the most populous states, or California in conjunction with other predominantly Democratic states in the Northeast, choose a president for the entire country? Presidential candidates then would campaign only in a few states that “mattered” and federal largesse would be concentrated there. If there was a surprise in the most recent campaign, it was Middle America’s profound sense of abandonment by the political establishment. Without the Electoral College, the neglect only would worsen.
The Electoral College is a system that promotes the balance at the heart of the Constitutional Convention. Writing in Federalist 68 about the method of selecting the president, Alexander Hamilton said, “I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.” On this point, America still must defer to the Founding Fathers.
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