Reasons to Keep the Electoral College

Joint Session Of Congress Tallies Electoral Votes
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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.

Did the Founding Fathers—the framers of the Constitution—not realize that the Electoral College system effectively took the power to select the American president out of the hands of the American people?

In fact, the Founders always intended that the states—not the people—select the president.

Article II 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 the 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 Elbridge 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 George Mason, July 17, 1787
"The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men." — Delegate Elbridge 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 the 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.

Small States Get Equal Voice

The Electoral College helps give rural states with lower populations an equal voice.

If the popular vote alone decided elections, the presidential candidates would rarely visit those states or consider the needs of rural residents in their policy platforms.

Due to the Electoral College process, candidates must get votes from multiple states—large and small—thus helping to ensure that the president will address the needs of the entire country.

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

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, the Electoral College system flies in the face of democracy. America is, after all, a democracy, is it not?

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 whom they elect periodically 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.)

A Republic

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

Direct democracy works only when all or at least most of the people participate in the process.

The Founding Fathers knew that as the nation grew and the time required for debating and voting on every issue increased, the public’s desire to take part in the process would quickly decrease.

As a result, the decisions and actions taken would not truly reflect the will of the majority, but small groups of people representing their own interests.

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 the 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 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.

Electoral Count Act of 2022

After the Chaos at the Capitol of January 6, 2021, polls showed that the American people have never been more skeptical of their electoral processes. In a rare bipartisan move, Congress is hoping to reverse that trend. 

On September 30, 2022, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, in voting to advance the Electoral Count Reform Act, a bill that would reform an antiquated law that was used as grounds in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

The Electoral Count Reform Act is meant to address ambiguities found in the Electoral Count Act of 1887. The centuries-old measure governs the process of sending, counting, and certifying the state's electoral votes for presidential elections. However, its shortcomings have complicated presidential elections. Most recently, the 1887 law was invoked to organize alternative slates of electors and pressure former Vice President Mike Pence to obstruct the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

The Electoral Count Reform Act would amend the Electoral Count Act of  1887 by clarifying the purely ceremonial role of the vice president in certifying elections, reaffirming that a state’s electors must be selected according to already existing state law, and raising the threshold needed for members of Congress to lodge objections to electoral votes. Currently, the certification of a presidential election can be halted if just one member of each chamber objects.

The bill enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress. “I strongly support the modest changes that our colleagues in the working group have fleshed out after months of detailed discussions. I will proudly support the legislation, provided that nothing more than technical changes are made to its current form,” McConnell said in a press statement.

The Senate is likely to wait to vote on the Electoral Count Reform Act until Congress reconvenes after the November 2022 midterm elections. “The substance of this bill is common sense,” McConnell said. “This is not an opportunity we should pass up.”

Changing the System

Any change to the way America chooses its president will require a constitutional amendment. For this to come about:

First, a presidential candidate must lose the nationwide popular vote, but be elected through the Electoral College vote. This has already happened exactly four 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.
  • In 2016, Republican Donald Trump lost the popular vote with 62,984,825. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton received a total of 65,853,516 popular votes. In the Electoral College, Trump was granted 306 votes to Clinton's 232.

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 the first two criteria were met, 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.

No Bad Results

Even the harshest critics would have trouble proving that in more than 200 years of operation, the Electoral College system has produced bad results. Only twice have the electors stumbled and been unable to choose a president, thus throwing the decision to the House of Representatives.

And who did the House decide on in those two cases? Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.

View Article Sources
  1. "Electoral College Results." National Archives. Washington DC: Office of the Federal Register, 2020. 

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Reasons to Keep the Electoral College." ThoughtCo, Oct. 3, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, October 3). Reasons to Keep the Electoral College. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Reasons to Keep the Electoral College." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).

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