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Two Sides: Electoral College

By LaVarr Webb

The founders of this country knew exactly what they were doing when they established the Electoral College. It made sense then, and probably makes even more sense now.

They believed in the rule of the people, but through structures that would make it a just and reasonable rule.

According to Joseph J. Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, “Framers of the Constitution did not believe in straightforward democracy, which they regarded as a crude and shortsighted expression of popular opinion, often at odds with the long-term public interest. They did not want senators, Supreme Court justices or presidents directly elected. They wanted these decisions to pass through succeeding layers of deliberation. They established not a democracy, but a republic, in which popular opinion had to battle its way through artfully contrived chambers of refinement before reaching the promised land of political power.”

Peter Schramm, constitutional scholar and professor of political science at Ashland University writes: “If a great political uproar or popular issue, inflaming the passions of the people, sweeps through the land, exacerbated by heavy media coverage and rabble-rousing populists, with perhaps the rights of minority groups in danger of being trampled, the effect will certainly be reflected in legislation and election wins. But it will be mitigated, slowed down, made more reasonable, more moderate, by the provisions of the Constitution, by the separation of powers, by a stable judiciary, by the difficulty of amending the Constitution (a process in which the states play a major role), and by the Electoral College. The Founders structure creates stability. The Electoral College is part of that carefully constructed balance of direct democracy, federalism and representative government.”

“The Constitution is a great limiting document. The founders could have simply created a government in which everything was determined by direct votes. But their government is far from that. Presidents appoint judges. They aren’t elected. U.S. Senators are elected, but not proportionally, which allows at least some power to reside in states. The constitution isn’t amended except by two-thirds of state legislatures, also providing some power to the states. And presidents aren’t elected entirely by popular vote, except as that popular vote is exercised through the states. So it is a combination of popular vote and state sovereignty.”

We do have a democratic election for president, but it is democratic within each state. This bolsters one of the great principles of the Constitution, federalism. Candidates and political parties have to campaign in such a manner as to construct a constitutional, as opposed to a popular, majority. Candidates are forced to think in terms of states, and to campaign for the majority vote in each state. Such campaigns encourage compromise between different geographical interests. The process forces candidates to the center and supports the two-party system, which does not eliminate partisanship, but does moderate it. This gives us more rational and more moderate majorities. The Electoral College gives us a president that is responsive not just to a concentrated majority, but to the nation as a whole.

It’s true that most of the focus today is on a handful of closely contested states, but this is not always the case. Small states like Nevada and New Mexico receive a lot of attention that they wouldn’t get except for the Electoral College. If the presidential election was entirely a popular vote, candidates would spend all their resources in the big metropolitan areas with big media markets and small states would be ignored. It makes all states meaningful.

The argument boils down to the states. Do we care about federalism, or are we just one big mass of people with state lines that mean nothing? And do we want to concentrate more and more power at the federal level?

Direct election of the president was considered and rejected at the Constitutional Convention in favor of instituting a limited, constitutional system of government which would protect the fundamental rights of all its citizens, not just those in certain geographic areas or members of the majority.

LaVarr Webb spent nearly 17 years as political editor, city editor and managing editor of Salt Lake City’s Deseret Morning News. He has covered hundreds of political campaigns, legislative sessions, and political party conventions as well as serving as Deputy for Policy under Utah Governor Mike Leavitt. LaVarr is the founder of The Exoro Group in Salt Lake City.

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