The Electoral College: Its Logical Foundations and Problems What (if Anything) Should Be Done About Improving the System of Electing a President? (Part 1)

author: Alexander S. Belenky, Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Judith Best, State University of New York College at Cortland
author: Robert Hardaway, Sturm College of Law, University of Denver
author: John Fortier, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
published: June 4, 2013,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 2606

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Give a hearty cheer for the Electoral College, and for the Founding Fathers, whose good sense (and good luck), say these panelists, have led to a durable, wise and relatively fair system for electing a president.

By way of introduction, Alex Belenky details the mechanics of the current Electoral College, and explains “to a certain extent, this is not in line with what was initially designed or meant by the Founding Fathers.” The founders’ idea was to appoint “some wise people from different states and they would come up with their own ideas. These wise people, a so-called independent congress, would elect a president.” Belenky encourages panelists to debate whether the current system, in which electoral votes are determined by how states vote, should be abolished, or combined somehow with a popular vote. The people’s belief that they vote for president and vice president directly “is definitely a far cry from reality,” he says.

The greatest fear of the founders, says Judith Best, was that of a majority tyranny that could control the entire government, and use it to oppress a minority. This fear led to the concept of three branches of government with separation of powers, and a federal principle shaping all governing institutions and decisions, where no popular votes for anything can be added across state lines. These are “load-bearing walls of the Constitution,” says Best.

Founders determined a method to balance nation and states, viewed as “little republics where selfish interests are forced to compromise early and often.” But they struggled with the presidential election, especially how to prevent Congress from making the president its lackey. So they cleverly created a temporary congress to hire the president, with “no further influence or power over the winner.” This ephemeral body, the Electoral College, “beats all alternatives,” believes Best. The goal of an election is to “select a president who can govern a vast, heterogeneous nation,” not serve as a public opinion poll. Requiring candidates to win states structures the election, forcing candidates to form broad cross-sectional coalitions, which unlike a popular vote, leads to a swift, sure decision to fill the world’s most powerful office.

Robert Hardaway believes the Electoral College is part of a grand plan that works quite well. This “parallel parliament” has but one duty: to meet every four years to select a president. John F. Kennedy, whose election in 1960 raised questions about the electoral mechanism, described a solar system of government power, all in balance. JFK believed any attempt to rework the Electoral College would mean transforming the other branches as well. Alternatives such as direct elections can lead to a proliferation of splinter parties, and to runoff elections where a majority of the people might reject the runoff candidates, but still end up with one of them. Founding Fathers wanted a system that protected minority rights and that “would elect a candidate whose support was broad as well as deep,” says Hardaway.

The Electoral College works pretty well in general, says John Fortier. There’s not a great likelihood that the popular vote will head in one direction and electoral vote in another, and while small states exert substantial influence, they are relatively evenly split between the two parties. Our system takes “seriously the need to win a majority or strong plurality in states to do things, not just to elect a president, but to pass state laws.” The most serious argument against the Electoral College is that campaigns don’t take place as much nationally as in selected states, says Fortier, and he’d be “open to looking at some sort of proportional system where states would allocate electors that might open up…greater competition.”

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