It's that time of the election season again — time for a few cranky pundits in the press to begin their quadrennial dithyramb about the Electoral College. Already, we see dire warnings that the popular vote winner in next week's presidential race could be an Electoral College loser. These omens are beginning to sound ridiculous.
The Electoral College is an institution much misunderstood today. According to Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." The electors are directed to vote in their respective states, and Congress counts their votes.
Outbreaks of anti-Electoral College fever tend to come in election years in which there is a close two-way race between the major party candidates, or there is a strong third-party candidate, or both.
In the postwar era, we have been warned about possible divided outcomes in 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, and now in 2000. None of those warnings ever came true. Yet, from time to time, Congress takes up the question of "reforming" the way we elect presidents. In a few instances, lawmakers produced a constitutional amendment to scrap the College and replace it with a direct popular vote. The most successful of these came after the 1968 election. The amendment was narrowly defeated in Congress. If a Gallup poll taken at the time is to be believed, the amendment would have been ratified easily by the requisite three-fourths of the states.
Why did the Founders create a state-by-state method of electing the president as opposed to a direct national election? In fact, a direct popular election was the first choice of James Madison and James Wilson, among others. Upon further deliberation, however, the framers of the Constitution rejected direct national elections. They had several reasons for doing so.
First was the sheer size of the country. A direct election in a nation of 4 million people, spread over a 3,000-mile coastline, would have been a logistical nightmare. Second, there were legitimate concerns about granting a unitary executive the type of mandate that would come from a such an election. The last thing the Founders wanted to do was produce an American Caesar. Finally, the Founders were jealous to guard the federal character of the regime, a system of shared responsibilities between the national and state governments.
Of course, the old problems of distance and communication are solved. Why, then, does the Electoral College survive? The answer is that the United States remains a federal republic. John F. Kennedy argued that the Electoral College is part of a solar system of government institutions. If you tinker with one element, you risk throwing the others out of balance: "If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements of the solar system," he said, "it is necessary to change the others."
Despite the doom and gloom prophecies of the Electoral College Cassandras, the method of presidential election bequeathed to us by America's Founders has performed beautifully. The College serves a vital function in close popular vote elections. Many of these close popular votes have been solid Electoral College victories, adding more legitimacy to a new president faced with the task of leading an entire nation for the next four years.
The election of 1888 is the only clear case of a popular vote winner being denied office because of an Electoral College defeat. That year, Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison. But Cleveland lost because he pursued a foolish election strategy. He ran a divisive sectional campaign, tallying huge popular victories in the South while losing a series of narrow races in the Northeast and Midwest. A successful presidential candidate must run a national campaign on issues that will unite a substantial portion of the electorate. Short of something like this, the odds of a divided verdict are negligible.
The Electoral College is a vital element of our federal system of government. It magnifies close popular vote elections and turns them into Electoral College landslides. It forces candidates to run on national themes, avoiding divisive sectional issues that could tear the country apart. The Electoral College should not be feared. It should not even be merely tolerated. Instead, it should be celebrated as one of the crowning achievements of our Founding Fathers.