Time For Reform Considering The Failures Of

Time For Reform? Considering The Failures Of The Electoral College Essay, Research Paper

Time For Reform? Considering The Failures of The Electoral College

Description: This paper discusses the many shortcomings of the Electoral College,

and posits possible alternative electoral processes which likely be more


Time for Reform? Considering the failures of the Electoral College

A common misconception among American is that when they vote they elect the

President. The truth is not nearly this simple. What in fact happens when a

person votes is that there vote goes for an Elector. This Elector (who is

selected by the respective state in which a vote is cast) casts ballots for two

individuals, the President and the Vice-President. Each state has the same

number of electors as there are Senate and House of Representative members for

that State. When the voting has stopped the candidate who receives the majority

of the Electoral votes for a state receives all the electoral votes for that

state. All the votes are transmitted to Washington, D.C. for tallying, and the

candidate with the majority of the electoral votes wins the presidency. If no

candidate receives a majority of the vote, the responsibility of selecting the

next President falls upon the House of Representatives. This elaborate system of

Presidential selection is thought by many to be an 18th century anachronism

(Hoxie p. 717), what it is in fact is the product of a 200 year old debate over

who should select the President and why.

In 1787, the Framers in their infinite wisdom, saw the need to respect the

principles of both Federalists and States Righters (republicans) (Hoxie p. 717).

Summarily a compromise was struck between those who felt Congress should select

the President and those who felt the states should have a say. In 1788 the

Electoral College was indoctrinated and placed into operation. The College was

to allow people a say in who lead them, but was also to protect against the

general public’s ignorance of politics. Why the fear of the peoples ignorance of

politics? It was argued that the people, left to their own devices could be

swayed by a few designing men to elect a king or demagogue (McManus p. 19). With

the Electoral College in place the people could make a screened decision about

who the highest authority in the land was to be (Bailey & Shafritz (p. 60); at

the same time the fear of the newly formed nation being destroyed by a demagogue

could be put to rest because wiser men had the final say.

200 years later the system is still designed to safeguard against the ignorant

capacities of the people. The Electoral College has remained relatively

unchanged in form and function since 1787, the year of its formulation. This in

itself poses a problem because in 200 years the stakes have changed yet the

College has remained the same. A safeguard against a demagogue may still be

relevant, but the College as this safeguard has proved flawed in other

capacities. These flaws have shed light on the many paths to undemocratic

election. The question then is what shall the priorities be? Shall the flaws be

addressed or are they acceptable foibles of a system that has effectively

prevented the rise of a king for 200 years? To answer this question we must

first consider a number of events past and possible that have or could have

occurred as a result of the flaws Electoral College.

The Unfaithful Elector

Under the current processes of the Electoral College, when a member of the

general electorate casts a vote for a candidate he is in fact casting a vote for

an Electoral College member who is an elector for that candidate. Bound only by

tradition this College member is expected to remain faithful to the candidate he

has initially agreed to elect. This has not always happened. In past instances

Electoral College member have proved to be unfaithful. This unfaithful elector

ignores the will of the general electorate and instead selects candidate other

than the one he was expected to elect (McGaughey, p. 81). This unfaithfulness

summarily subjugates all the votes for a candidate in a particular district. In

all fairness it is important to note that instances of unfaithful electors are

few and far between, and in fact 26 states have laws preventing against

unfaithful electors (McGauhey, p.81). Despite this the fact remains that the

possibility of an unfaithful elector does exist and it exists because the system

is designed to circumvent around direct popular election of the President.

The Numbers Flaw

The unfaithful elector is an example of how the popular will can be purposely

ignored. The Numbers Flaw reveals how the will of the people can be passed over

unintentionally due to flaw of design (McNown, Lecture Notes, 2/20/93).

(a)6/b(4) | (a)6/b(6) Candidate a: 18

| Candidate b: 22


| Electoral Votes

(a)6/b(4) | (a)0/b(10) Candidate a: 3

| Candidate b: 1

In this theoretical example candidate (a) receives a minority of the popular

votes with 18, but a majority of the electoral votes with three. Candidate (b)

receives a majority of the popular votes with 22, but receives only one

electoral vote. Under the winner-take-all system, the candidate with the

majority of the electoral votes not only wins the state but also receives all

the electoral votes for that state. In this hypothetical situation candidate (a)

receiving a minority of the popular votes wins the state and takes all the

electoral votes. The acceptability of this denial of the popular will,

unintentional or otherwise, is questionable to say the least.

Tie Game

The problem posed by no one person receiving a majority of the electoral votes

(a tie) first came to head in the 1800 elections. The success of political

parties served to turn Electoral College members into agents of the parties

Bailey & Shafritz p. 61). This so galvanized the 1800 elections that the

Republican electors cast their two votes for the two Republican candidates,

Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr respectively. It was assumed that Jefferson

would be President and Burr the Vice-President. Unfortunately their was no

constitutional doctrine to affirm this assumption. As a result the ever

audacious Aaron Burr challenged Jefferson election as President and the issue

had to be sent to the House for resolution (Bailey & Shafritz, p. 61). Any

debating on the issue was only incidental; when all was said and done the issue

was decided by one man, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, and the Federalists were

in control of the House when the decision was to be made. Hamilton, who

disagreed with Jefferson but overwhelmingly distrusted Burr, orchestrated a

blank ballot initiative among the Federalists which allowed the Republicans to

select Jefferson as President (Bailey & Shafritz, p. 61). Though this entire

incident was significant the most noteworthy aspect was the fact that the

President was essentially chosen by one man. The final decision was taken

entirely out of the hands of the people and was left to the mercy of the biases

of a single individual. In all fairness it should be noted that the 12th

amendment was formulated out of the Jefferson-Burr to forever lay to rest the

question of who is President and Vice-President in a tie. The 12th amendment

stipulates that electors are to cast separate votes for the President and Vice

President, and summarily an event such as the Jefferson-Burr incident cannot

happen again. (Bailey & Shafritz p. 61). In effect the 12th prevents the issue

of a tie from going to the House under a very narrow scope of conditions. This

is far less of a solution than one which would have prevented this issue from

going to the House at all because when the issue of who would be President went

to the House in 1800, the issue of democracy was left to compromise. This all

serves to reveal yet another flaw of the Electoral College process.

Congressional selection of the President can lead to democratic compromise. This

would seem an area of concern. Though some would argue we have had 200 years to

distance ourselves from such maladies as the elections of 1800, the following

reveals how close to home the flaws 200 year old institution can hit.

The Wallace Debacle

In 1968 a three-way tie nearly brought to head the same undemocratic modes of

presidential selections that emerged 200 years earlier with the Jefferson-Burr

incident. The 1968 elections race was extremely close. Richard Nixon barley

received a majority of the electoral votes to win the presidency. Had Nixon

failed to get a majority a number of bizarre scenarios might have emerged. The

candidates in the race were Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace

respectively. Had Nixon failed to win a majority Wallace would have been in a

position to control who the next President would be (Bailey & Shafritz p. 65).

Though he could not have won himself Wallace could have used his votes as swing

votes to give Nixon a majority, or give Humphrey enough to prevent Nixon from

getting a majority (Bailey & Shafritz p. 65). In the latter instance the issue

would have, as in 1800, been sent to the House for rectification. In either

instance Wallace would have had a great deal to gain, and the temptation to

wheel and deal (at the compromise of democracy) would have been great indeed. It

is possible Wallace could have used his influence with Southern House members to

get Humphrey elected. In the process he would have likely `garnered great

political clout for himself. Wallace could have bargained with Nixon for an

administration position in Nixon’s cabinet in return for Wallace’s electoral

votes. The possible scenarios are endless, and for the most part irrelevant.

What is relevant is that the processes of the Electoral College again paved a

path for democratic compromise, just as it did in 1800. If time is the mechanism

for change then apparently not enough time has passed.


The shortcomings of the Electoral College presented above are only a few of many

flaws. Others flaws include the bias toward small and large states, which gives

these states a disproportionate advantage; The bias toward those who live in

urban areas and therefore enjoy a stronger vote than those living in sparsely

populated areas (Bailey & Shafritz p. 63). The list of flaws is extensive. The

question that still remains is whether or not the flaws are extensive enough to

warrant change? The Electoral College has successfully provided the U.S. with

its Presidents for 200 years and has done so without allowing the ascension of a

demagogue. But in the process of 200 years of electing the College has allowed

the will of the people to be compromised. Granted at the time of the 1800

elections the College was young and its shortcomings were not entirely clear.

200 years later the flaws have revealed themselves or have been revealed in

various fashion. The question remains then are flaws acceptable considering the

duty the College performs? If the purpose of the College is to provide democracy

but prevent demagoguery then its success seems uncertain. The U.S. has seen no

demagogue but has seen compromise of democracy. The evidence shows that the

flaws of the Electoral College are responsible for democratic compromise. It

would seem then that the flaws of the college are self-defeating to the purpose

of the college. If this is then it is definitely time for reform.


1 Bailey, Harry A. Jr., Shafritz, Jay M. The American Presidency, (California:

Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1988) Chapter III

2 McGauhey, Elizabeth P., “Democracy at Risk,” Policy Review, Winter 1993: 79-81

3 R. Gordon Hoxie, “Alexander Hamilton and the Electoral System Revisited,”

Presidential Studies Quarterly, v. 18 n. 4 p. 717-720

4 John F. McManus, “Let the Constitution Work,” The New American, v. 8 n. 14 p.


5 William P. Hoar, “The Electoral College: How The Republic Chooses its

President,” New American, v. 8 n. 16 p. 23-28


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