Monday, July 02, 2007

The Necessity of the Electoral College

In preparation for the celebration of Independence Day, in which Americans (should) recall the sacrifices endured to create a homeland free from tyranny, I thought I would share a short meditation by George P. Burdell, visiting Constitutional Law Scholar, on the nature of the Electoral College and how it was designed to guard against political tyranny.

I recently overheard a frustrated and disappointed pundit cry in the wake of post 2004 election blues: "If the guy who got the most votes doesn't win, then IT ISN'T DEMOCRACY!"

How perspicacious of him. America never was, nor should it ever be, a democracy. America is a Federal Republic (US Constitution, ARTICLE IV, Section 4), a hybrid of democracy and monarchy, but not a strict representation of either. A Federal Republic retains the best elements of democracy and monarchy while disposing of their respective worst elements. Since a discussion of monarchy is not in context here, it will be pointed out exclusively that democracy itself is not so desirable. In fact, a strict democracy would never be palliative even for those who feel like their vote was cancelled by an electoral college counter swing for this simple reason: at some point, a popular vote may take place that by a simple majority installs a president with legislative intentions that is "harmful" to the desires of those who would now eradicate the electoral college. The electoral college was put into place to limit the power of simple majorities with minority concerns; i.e. special interest agendas. Special interest agendas, by definition, never accurately reflect the will of the people with such consensus that stability and order is maintained.

The US is a confederation of states, not a homogenous political body. These states are held together by a federal constitution " establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense (i.e., the general defense), promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity..." However, each state has different resources (or lack of them), different populations, different economic concerns, and different social values. Yes, we are unified, but as a federal integration of differential units. I don't care that the president ever visit my state in a campaign bid. But I do care that the president accurately represents my constitutional rights to the benefit of everyone. Currently, the best expression of the popular intent is at the state level. Here the popular will of the people is appropriately heard, addressed, and reflected by the peculiar concerns of the people in their respective states. In presidential elections, this occurs with the electoral college "all or nothing" format. If it occurs that the will of Californians is commensurate with the will of Georgians, then that will is best known by the electoral college. Otherwise, why would Georgians (or even smaller states) desire to relinquish their concerns to the will of a body politic 2500 miles away with a different economy and differnet values? When each state has equal populations with equivalent economies and social values then an aggregate popular vote will begin to make sense. Otherwise, the only rational place for the national aggregate will of the people to be expressed is in the market place. It is here that all people can act in a self-determined manner to establish the prices for goods and services, respond to supply and demand, and achieve personal wealth.

The President is elected to represent the rights of ALL Americans (not simple majorities of them), to promote legislation to the Congress to further the general welfare of our country, to endorse or veto congressional legislation, and to be the Commander in Chief of our military that provides for the common defense. The electoral college ensures that the president who is elected most likely represents and understands the largest concerns of the country as opposed to the specialized and local concerns of a simple majority contained in only the most populated centers of our country. In other words, the electoral college actually ensures that, more often than not, the elected president fulfills the requirements of our constitution more generally than a president who wins 51% of the popular vote. Consequently, the president is not elected to represent the aggregate will of the people, but the will of the people in their respective differential states. In this line of reasoning, it is Bush who won the largest number of states, and thus represents the broader will of the people. In actuality, neither candidate won a simple majority since by now, the actual popular vote is split approximately 49% to 49%. Hardly an aggregate popular mandate for either candidate. In fact, Bill Clinton won even less popular vote, and he was elected into office by 42% of the popular vote cast. Again, hardly an aggregate popular mandate for him as president, but a decisive mandate from the electoral college.

From James Madison in the Federalist Paper No. 10: "Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." The constitutional framers were astute students of political power. Consequently, they wrote the constitution with the idea that legislative deadlock should be the norm more often than swift legislative action. To accurately represent the real needs, concerns, and trade-offs of a large population of people requires ponderous rationality and discretion. The electoral college is part of this system of graded powers that prevents majority whim to enact changes that affect significant populations with less than majority influence. Our republic has lasted as long as it has, in part, precisely due to the annealing effect of the balance of graded powers. To change this now, particularly as information and MISINFORMATION are transmitted so effortlessly now, would be national suicide. Instability would become the norm rather than the stability that has been our nation's halmark. In other words, we need the electoral college and representative government now more than ever, not the opposite.

But let the exponents of the eradication of the electoral college be consistent in their desire for a pure democracy, if such a will truly exists. If they are going to decry the electoral college as anti-democratic, why don't they go the full measure and denounce the executive and representative legislative branches as being undemocratic also? Afterall, the various bills placed before both houses of Congress are never assessed and approved by the direct will of the people but by representative proxy. And what about Constitutional interpretation? Why have a judicial branch at all? After all, in a pure democracy, the will of the people should directly determine the appropriateness of legislation and the meaning of laws. Maybe the guilt or innocence of alleged criminals should be determined by national will as well. We could eradicate all branches of government and replace them with daily referendums. But we can see where this goes. One day, one law would be passed, and shortly thereafter another law would overturn it. All it would take is a simple majority in a pure democracy to introduce a yearly (if not monthly) switching dominance of one whim over another. This is the tyranny and quagmire of simple majorities that pure democracies introduce and that our founding fathers so rightly avoided by establishing a federal republic that includes the electoral college.


Rich's ramblings said...


Interesting viewpoint on a topic that is glossed over in most courses of instruction. Ask the average person what the electoral college is and most couldn't answer completely or correctly [Maybe you should send a note to Jay Leno to ask that question on his Jaywalking sessions?]. If there were in fact majority votes for presidential elections, can you imagine how intense and overdone the smear campaigns would be right before the elections?


Robert said...

The smear campaigns might be pretty bad, but I'd fear democracy more than bad manners.