In Defense of the Electoral College (Was Re: Gore doesn't need Florida)

From: Matthew Gaylor (
Date: Sun Nov 12 2000 - 09:47:15 MST

November 10, 2000

In Defense of the Electoral College

by John Samples

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government
at the Cato Institute.

Critics have long derided the Electoral College as a fusty relic of a
bygone era, an unnecessary institution that one day might undermine
democracy by electing a minority president. That day has arrived,
assuming Gov. Bush wins the Florida recount as seems likely.

The fact that Bush is poised to become president without a plurality
of the vote contravenes neither the letter nor the spirit of the
Constitution. The wording of our basic law is clear: The winner in
the Electoral College takes office as president. But what of the
spirit of our institutions? Are we not a democracy that honors the
will of the people? The very question indicates a misunderstanding of
our Constitution.

James Madison's famous Federalist No. 10 makes clear that the
Founders fashioned a republic, not a pure democracy. To be sure, they
knew that the consent of the governed was the ultimate basis of
government, but the Founders denied that such consent could be
reduced to simple majority or plurality rule. In fact, nothing could
be more alien to the spirit of American constitutionalism than
equating democracy will the direct, unrefined will of the people.

Recall the ways our constitution puts limits on any unchecked power,
including the arbitrary will of the people. Power at the national
level is divided among the three branches, each reflecting a
different constituency. Power is divided yet again between the
national government and the states. Madison noted that these twofold
divisions -- the separation of powers and federalism -- provided a
"double security" for the rights of the people.

What about the democratic principle of one person, one vote? Isn't
that principle essential to our form of government? The Founders'
handiwork says otherwise. Neither the Senate, nor the Supreme Court,
nor the president is elected on the basis of one person, one vote.
That's why a state like Montana, with 883,000 residents, gets the
same number of Senators as California, with 33 million people.
Consistency would require that if we abolish the Electoral College,
we rid ourselves of the Senate as well. Are we ready to do that?

The filtering of the popular will through the Electoral College is an
affirmation, rather than a betrayal, of the American republic. Doing
away with the Electoral College would breach our fidelity to the
spirit of the Constitution, a document expressly written to thwart
the excesses of majoritarianism. Nonetheless, such fidelity will
strike some as blind adherence to the past. For those skeptics, I
would point out two other advantages the Electoral College offers.

First, we must keep in mind the likely effects of direct popular
election of the president. We would probably see elections dominated
by the most populous regions of the country or by several large
metropolitan areas. In the 2000 election, for example, Vice President
Gore could have put together a plurality or majority in the
Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and California.

The victims in such elections would be those regions too sparsely
populated to merit the attention of presidential candidates. Pure
democrats would hardly regret that diminished status, but I wonder if
a large and diverse nation should write off whole parts of its
territory. We should keep in mind the regional conflicts that have
plagued large and diverse nations like India, China, and Russia. The
Electoral College is a good antidote to the poison of regionalism
because it forces presidential candidates to seek support throughout
the nation. By making sure no state will be left behind, it provides
a measure of coherence to our nation.

Second, the Electoral College makes sure that the states count in
presidential elections. As such, it is an important part of our
federalist system -- a system worth preserving. Historically,
federalism is central to our grand constitutional effort to restrain
power, but even in our own time we have found that devolving power to
the states leads to important policy innovations (welfare reform).

If the Founders had wished to create a pure democracy, they would
have done so. Those who now wish to do away with the Electoral
College are welcome to amend the Constitution, but if they succeed,
they will be taking America further away from its roots as a
constitutional republic.

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Matthew Gaylor,1933 E. Dublin-Granville Rd., PMB 176, Columbus, OH 43229
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