We (still) need the Electoral College

It seems bizarre that the person with the most votes doesn't win the presidency – that is until you open up a book, read what the Founding Fathers were doing, and grasp the significance and importance of federalism in the lasting success of our American Republic.

Sadly, since many choose not to do that and instead appear driven solely by their political passions, we're enduring another spate of "abandon the undemocratic Electoral College" fits.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom of those who paid no attention in government class, ours is not a democracy, and we would never want it to be.  The Founders feared a mass democracy, where a large faction could vote themselves favor from the pockets of smaller factions.  The interests of big states, they reasoned, should not override the needs of the small states; coastal towns should not exercise supreme authority over the vastly different concerns of a landlocked western frontier; industrial northern states should not wield unlimited power over the heads of the agrarian southern states just because they're more populated.

That's why the House of Representatives was intentionally designed as the only part of our national government that would be directly elected by the people.  Since the House was to represent people's local interests, it made sense to have representatives chosen directly by a majority of voters in those small residential districts.  But other parts of the national government were to be representative not of "the people," but of the interests of the states. 

It's why the Senate was originally designed as a body whose members were chosen by the states' legislatures, not citizens.  And it's why when it came to choosing a national executive, the Founders rejected James Wilson's suggestion that the president be elected by popular vote and turned to James Madison to craft an Electoral College – a non-permanent body of electors chosen every four years among the states to convene for the sole purpose of selecting the national candidate most suited for the office of president. 

Why is the Electoral College so critical to keep around?  For the very same reason it was critical in 1787.  Our factions today may not be north-south, coastal-frontier, or even industrial-agrarian.  But there are still varying interests and factions of the country that must be tempered.  There are the interests and expectations of the heavily populated urban centers, and there are the interests and needs of the less populated (but far more expansive) rural regions.  Those who would discard the Electoral College would upend the Founders' intent to guard against the tyranny of the majority.  A simple look at a county-by-county breakdown of the 2016 election shows why. 

Geographically speaking, though she won more votes, Hillary Clinton won only 17% of the country.  Without the Electoral College, then, the regional interests of 83% of the nation would have been unrepresented by their chief executive.  That would be a destabilizing reality with dangerous implications for the future of American politics.  Donald Trump said himself that he could have won the popular vote if he had focused his campaign only on major cities and the issues that appealed to them.

Imagine the kind of candidates and campaign we would engender if both nominees needed only to appeal to urban voters.  Consider the disconnect between a leader chosen every four years by two metropolitan strips (Boston-New York-Washington, and San Francisco-Los Angeles-San Diego) and the remainder of the country.

The national executive was designed to represent the national interest, and the Electoral College sees to that brilliantly.  It prevents the office from being occupied by someone who encapsulates the interests of a powerful majority faction (in this case, urban interests) that is not representative of the national body politic. 

I can sincerely understand the frustration of those whose candidate won overwhelming majorities of urban voter districts but lost because she could not persuade a significant number of voters in virtually every other region of the country. 

But rather than attack the Electoral College as being unjust – a system enshrined in our federal Constitution that acts to preserve the essence of federalism more than maybe any other vestige remaining from 1787 – perhaps their energies would be better spent finding candidates whose message appeals to more than one faction (numerous as they may be) of the electorate.  That is, after all, precisely what the Founders intended.

Peter Heck is a speaker, author, and teacher.  Follow him at @peterheck, email peter@peterheck.com, or visit www.peterheck.com.

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