Should The Electoral College Be Reformed? Essay, Research Paper
The body that elects the presidents and vice-presidents of the United States is known as the electoral college. Article 2, Section I, of the Constitution provides that each state “shall appoint” as many presidential electors as the state has members of Congress. (Three is the smallest number of electors a state may have, since every state has two senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives.) The Constitution gives the legislature of each state the authority to decide how that state’s presidential electors are chosen, and every state has provided that the electors shall be directly elected by the voters. After the electors have been chosen, they meet in their respective state capitals to cast their ballots. The only constitutional restriction is that an elector may vote for only one candidate who is a resident of the same state as that of the elector; this reflects the original assumption that the electors would exercise a choice. The Electoral College represented a compromise among the founders of the United States about how to elect a chief executive. The Constitution Convention, which wrote the Constitution of the United States and convened in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, considered more than 15 different proposals, including plans for election by Congress or one of its houses, by various state officials, by direct popular election, or by today’s system of electoral college. James Madison andGovernor Morris were among those whose favored a direct popular election by the people. Supporters of the direct election method argued that it had worked well in some states to elect a governor, would establish the independence and high caliber of the president, and was the most appropriate method for a democratic government. However, critics of the idea, such as Elbridge Gerry, doubted the capacity of public to choose its leader wisely, and worried about the “ignorance of the people.” George Mason thought the vastness of the country would preventvoters from knowing enough pertinent information about possible candidates to choose intelligently. For years, the Electoral College has been a favorite target for political reformers. Critics typically raise several points. First, many argue that the institution is undemocratic, especially since it could lead to the election of a president and vice president who received fewer popular votes than their opponents. Such a result, some contend, would be unfair and might not beaccepted as legitimate by the public. On sixteen occasions, a candidate has won an electoral majority though receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote. In fact, on several occasions, the Electoral College has awarded the presidency to a candidate who lost the popular vote. For instance, in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes (185-184) achieved an electoral majority, although Samuel J. Tilden won a popular majority (50.9%, compared to Hayes’s 47.9%). In 1888, Benjamin Harrison (233-168) won the presidency, although Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, by a margin of less than one percent (48.6% – 48.3%). Critics also express concern about the lack of accountability of electors, because they are mostly anonymous individuals, not the eminent persons that the founders envisioned them to be, Although they are chosen by state parties to support particular candidates, on occasion they have not done so, thereby creating concern about the irresponsible elector. Critics also complain that the Electoral College system is undemocratic in a second respect, because it ‘weighs’ the votes of some Americans more than others. Since each state has at least three electoral votes regardless of population, smaller states have a higher ratio electors to population than do larger states. On the other hand, the winner-take-all feature that the stateshave superimposed on the system tends to magnify the importance of voters in the larger states. A candidate who wins California by one popular votes wins 54 electoral votes; a candidate winning in Delaware only gets three. In turn, candidates have reason to commit disproportionate time and resources to, and tailor their platforms to the views of voters in, the largest states, thereby
enhancing the influence of groups concentrated in the large industrial states. Finally, arrangements for contingent election by the House of representatives and Senate raise some concerns. The House and Senate might elect a president and vice president and vice president from different parties, allowing a deadlock and permitting the Speaker of the House to act as president under the current presidential succession law. Reformers have proposed various remedies for these perceived defects. They range from abolishing the entire institution altogether and choosing a president and vice president from direct popular vote to the more modest proposal to retain the Electoral College votes with the general ticket and winner-take-all features but eliminate the individual electors. Intermediate proposals include choosing electors in districts in each state rather than statewide or choosingthem under a system of proportional representation However, defenders of the Electoral College suggest that the reforms would either undermine important principles of American democracy or cause unintended consequences. They argue that the institution has generally worked well for two centuries. Not only has the recipient of the most popular votes almost always won an electoral majority, but the Electoral College usually produces a proportionately greater margin than does the popular vote. For example, in John F. Kennedy’s official 0.1 percent popular margin in 1960 translated into a large 303 to 219 electoral victory. This tendency not only contributes to the mandate of the new president but also alleviates, to some extent, the need to recount all votes in elections that are close. Accordingly, the Electoral College contributes to the ability of American presidential elections to produce a clear result, not uncertainty Moreover, supporters of the Electoral contend that all visions of democracy do not require that the party with the most votes win control. The House or Senate, they point out, might be controlled by a party whose candidates collectively received fewer votes than their opponents. Nor does democracy always require that all votes be weighted equally. For example, the vote of a person in a small state assumes greater significance in electing a United States senator than it does that of a person in a large state. Nor is it necessarily a problem that the Electoral College favors majorities in large industrial states. In part, our constitutional arrangements are designed to protect minorities from majority control. Other values are also part of our constitutional structure, such as federalism and protecting minority interests, which the Electoral College system arguably assists. Defenders of the Electoral College also contend that it helps safeguard the two-party system. The winner-take-all feature makes it difficult for third parties to win electoral votes. A party that could command 15 to 20 percent of the vote evenly distributed across the states would receive no electoral vote evenly distributed across the states would receive no electoral votes andaccordingly would have less incentive to run and little appeal to potential supporters. In turn, the institution has inhibited the formation of ideological or splinter parties and has encouraged the survival of the two-party system, a feature that lends stability and cohesion to American politics. Despite the potential problems and controversy surrounding the electoral college, it is unlikely that either now or in the near future the constitution will be amended to change this 200 year old problem.