In the four years since the 2016 election, calls for the dissolution of the Electoral College have become widespread, and ahead of the 2020 election, the calls seem even louder. However, the Electoral College should remain, both to protect the minority political opinions against a tyranny of the majority and to preserve our union. The founders understood with unparalleled clarity the importance of structural parallelism, and they wrote beautifully in defense of the Electoral College and its benefits in “The Federalist Papers.” Calling to dismantle the Electoral College in the name of “one person, one vote” is, by logical extension, calling also for the dismantling of our federal republic.
The Federalist Papers are perhaps the greatest political commentary published in American history. They're a collection of 85 essays written in 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — under the pseudonym Publius — to persuade the American people to ratify the Constitution. Three specific essays illuminate the benefits checks and balances offer, the virtues a federalist system protects and how the Electoral College functions: No. 10, No. 51 and No. 68, respectively.
Before addressing the issue of dismantling the Electoral College, it’s imperative to understand its fundamental structure and operation. First, in every state, each party on the ballot chooses people to serve collectively as a slate of electors, all pledged to vote for a particular candidate. Critically, the number of electors per state is identical to the number of United States representatives and senators from that state. In November, when voters at the polls indicate their choice for the general election, the vote doesn’t go to the candidate directly, but rather to the slate of electors previously chosen by the candidate’s party. In December, the electors belonging to whichever party wins the state’s popular vote cast their votes for president and vice president.
As seen in 2016 — as well as 2000, 1888, and 1876 — it is possible for a candidate to win a solid majority of electoral votes and yet lose the popular vote nationwide. Since 1824, most states adopted a “winner-take-all” electoral vote system, with only Maine and Nebraska maintaining a proportional delegation today. Critics argue that this system, by which the people indirectly elect the president and vice president, doesn’t honor the democratic notion of “one person, one vote,” and places more weight on votes in smaller states. This argument is easily understandable yet fatefully ill-conceived.
Madison wrote famously in Federalist No. 10 about the role of “factions” in a federal republic: “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” Here, Madison defends the Constitution’s federalist system for its resistance to the rise of powerful factions. It is important to clarify the meaning of “faction,” and Madison does so, writing that “by a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest.” The Electoral College affords the same protection against a powerful faction, that is likely geographically or socioeconomically concentrated, by leveraging federalist principles identical to those so clearly outlined in the Constitution. A large faction that gains over 90 percent popularity in the nine most populous states would capture a majority of the American population. In a direct democracy, such a situation would transform the U.S. and endanger minority liberties at the whim of the majority.
However, the protection of the Electoral College extends further. It is easy to imagine a benevolent faction that constitutes a minority — groups united by occupation, ethnicity, religion, etc. In such an instance, federalism, and by extension the Electoral College, preserves their liberty. For example, consider Utah, where the majority of residents are Mormon. Within Utah, the popular vote is used in state elections, which means that state officials and legislation likely reflect the values of the voters, and each state’s individual rights allow for laws to reflect those values. For nominating the president and vice president in federal elections, Utah contributes six electoral votes. If the popular vote were used nationwide in nominating the president, who then influences legislation applied to every state, it’s understandable how minority groups could easily be stifled.
Next comes the troubling phrase “one person, one vote.” Nowhere in the Constitution does this notion appear regarding national voting. The United States is not a direct democracy. It never has been. We live in a federal republic, a Union of States. As such, federal representation is determined on a state level — think of Congress. A state’s Electoral College representation is identical to its total Congressional representation. Objecting to the Electoral College on the grounds it violates this notion logically entails an objection to the structure of Congress. The same degree of “inequality” in vote-weight found in the Electoral College exists in Congressional representation. Further, the only difference between state representation in the House and in the Electoral College is the addition of two votes to account for Senate seats and winner-take-all systems. Thus, taking aim at the Electoral College for its “unfairness” is only truly taking issue with Senate representation. As adamant as people may be to dissolve the Electoral College, the argument doesn’t incorporate due diligence and proponents have seemingly looked no further than the immediate desired effects. I certainly don’t hear these critics calling for the end of our bicameral legislature.
Federalism is at the core of the U.S. and is the foundation upon which Abraham Lincoln’s noble aspirations to “form a more perfect Union” reside. States existed long before their union under the Constitution in 1789, and before even the Declaration of Independence. We embraced federalism to become this union of states and wrote it so in the Constitution. The Electoral College, then, is not an arcane, needlessly controversial institution; rather, it is federalism applied once more. To dissolve the Electoral College is to invalidate the goals of federalism and such an act might have great repercussions, capable of dramatically altering our governmental landscape into something objectively less desirable. The Electoral College serves as an equalizer in the voting process like the Senate is to the legislature, protecting the populace from a tyranny of the majority, or a president’s desires run rampant.
The founders understood human nature and the nature of government with startling acuity. The Federalist Papers are an expression of that knowledge and a defense of the Constitution. The Electoral College is one of many inheritors of their genius, but it embodies all that the founders fought to preserve. Its dissolution would be a tragedy.
David Lisbonne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.