If Men Were Angels

There’s been a lot of talk over the last week about the Electoral College, or more specifically how a person can become president and yet lose the popular vote (again). The disdain for the outcome of the election has even resulted in Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) submitting legislation which calls for a constitutional amendment to end the electoral college. The claims are that it’s undemocratic, created to protect slavery, and that in the 21st century a president should be elected directly by the populous. The thing is, most of the arguments against the electoral college don’t make sense. Both history, and reality, support the continuation of the most federalist part of the American system of government.

First, we have to spend a minute getting the lingo down. America is NOT a direct democracy…it’s a representative republic. The US elects representatives which, in turn, are supposed to be our voices in government. Doesn’t always work that way, but that’s the way it is. Secondly, we need to go back to 1787 to realise why there’s an electoral college in the first place.

During the Constitutional Convention, most of the delegates were in favour of something called the Virginia Plan, or the election of the President by Congress. Many of the delegates were afraid that popular elections would lead to a monarchy or a dictatorship…and that charismatic individuals would use popular elections as a way to retain power for decades (obviously, this was before the 22nd amendment). Having just fought a war against a monarch, a system of government led by a man who could stay in power indefinitely wasn’t really what they had in mind. After a good deal of back and forth between those in favour of direct election (and even the delegates in favour of direct elections admitted that direct elections would favour the more populous areas, which at the time were large cities in the north like NY and Boston, and the landowners of the south) vs. those who preferred Congress do the electing (and even those in favour of Congress admitted that if Congress were to elect the president, there’d be no way the executive branch could be truly independent).

In the end, James Madison came to the rescue and sketched out a plan which gave each state a number of ‘electors’ equal to that of its representation in Congress (2 senators, members of house of representatives based on population). Both sides were satisfied with the outcome, mainly because it dealt with both concerns: even large states with greater population couldn’t overly influence an election since their number of electors was proportional to those of smaller states, and it insured an independent executive branch that couldn’t be controlled by Congress. In Federalist No. 39, Madison makes very clear his reasons for supporting the electoral college: the United States is a federalist system, created as a mix between federal-based governance and state-based governance; in Federalist No. 10 James Madison argued that direct elections would give overwhelming favour to larger population centres; and in Federalist No. 68 Alexander Hamilton argued that the entire purpose of the electoral college was to avoid the inherent bias of foreign powers, special interests, and elected representatives.

In 1860, the fear of popular vote by populous states influencing the outcome of an election came to pass. Despite only winning 39% of the popular vote, Abraham Lincoln was elected president because of the electoral college. The south was furious, and that election ushered in the stampede of succession, the civil war, and an end of an era. However, had the popular vote been the deciding factor, with the largest voting bloc being southern states who would become the Confederate States, Lincoln wouldn’t have won. If it wasn’t for the electoral college, Breckinridge and Douglas never would have both run, Douglas would have become president with Breckinridge his VP, and well, the history we know wouldn’t have happened.

Today, the argument that larger population blocks would decide an election is still valid…over 50% of the United States lives in 20 cities, almost all of them either in the Northeast or California. 160million people, living in just 10 states would ultimately make up the majority of a popular vote. Is the electoral college perfect? No. But the concerns the founders had about large populations influencing the outcome of an election stands the test of time. Yes, it’s frustrating when it the popular vote and the electoral vote don’t agree. Yes, the electoral system seems old fashioned and distrusting of the American voter. It seems like an easy answer…absolutely, in the 21st century, a leader should be elected by the popular vote.

But, can we really expect a country to accept a president elected by popular majority would easily could be only 1/5  to 1/4 of the states? The reality is that the population of the United States isn’t evenly distributed anywhere…and America isn’t a direct democracy…it elects representatives, the number of which is based on the population of a state, to govern. If the House of Representatives was a popularity contest, the US would have a legislature selected by 15 states, representing all 50. Instead of demanding a total retracting of the electoral college, maybe instead it’s time to discuss a little history…and come to grips with the fact that direct rule doesn’t exist in the US, and that a federalist system takes a little bit away from democracy.

Maybe it’s time for America to discuss the reality of the broken two party system. Fix what’s fixable…the electoral college may seem antiquated, and it may seem as if it infringes on democracy…but the reasons the founders created it ring true today. So, before you demand the end of the electoral college, ask yourself this: How do you represent the desires of the entirety of a country as large as the United States, without allowing a small section of the country to decide for everyone else?

Voter Turnout 2016 Presidential Election

Why Trump Won

If you’re a really bored person, or have a known torturer for an American history professor, you can read all the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers online.


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