Us Electoral College Essay, Research Paper
ELECTORAL COLLEGE SYSTEM: Is it time for a change?
The recent presidential election brought to the forefront of the American public s mind the question of whether the Electoral College remains an appropriate method of electing the nation s highest-ranking public official. Although the closeness of this race reminded the general public that they did not have the right to directly elect the president, the debate as to the value of this system, or the question of what is the best method, is not new. In fact, the shortcomings of the Electoral College system have for some time been the subject of academic debate (Abbott). Over the years, the favor, and disfavor, of the Electoral College system has ebbed and flowed with the possibility of an election resulting in no majority winner, due to a viable third party candidate, or the possibility of a president being elected without winning the popular vote. Thus, with the recent election of president Bush, who failed to win the popular vote, yet garnered the 270 Electoral Votes necessary to attain a majority, the debate has again gained momentum as not a purely academic question (Wildvasky).
While the Electoral College system does serve several arguably desirable objectives, it also limits the personal power of the voter. This paper will look at both sides of the debate, and then draw a conclusion as to whether or not the value of the Electoral College system outweighs the costs. However, before looking at the pros and cons of our present system, it is best to begin with an explanation of how the Electoral College system came about and its original intended purposes. By understanding this, the foundation of the Electoral College system can be applied to the 21st century and examined for its relevance. Finally, this paper will conclude that the Electoral College system does not fit with the realities of 21st century elections, nor is it even being used, as it was intended when adopted in the U.S. Constitution. As such, it should be abolished, and a direct vote system should replace it.
Origin of the Electoral College
Up front it should be noted that while the Electoral College system took the day and was adopted by the framers into the U.S. Constitution, it was compromise because the other two choices could not gain a consensus (Peirce). In fact, most arguments for the system were actually arguments against the other two (Peirce). As such, now that the arguments against the direct vote system can be largely discounted, the Electoral College system loses much of its luster.
In order to decide whether or not the Electoral College system is the best system for electing the U.S. President today, one must first know what this system brings to the table. A critical look at why the framers adopted such a system will best enable one to recognize the strong points of the system, and thereafter determine if the value of it makes sense in the 21st century. Although the framers had already resolved the question of how congress was to be elected in favor of the direct vote method, the idea of the president being elected by direct vote was not very popular (Peirce 41). In fact, Peirce suggests that many delegates favored congress electing the president, and it was from this starting point that the debate eventually led to the Electoral College system.
Although many began with the notion that the best way to select a president was by election in congress, the debate on this subject soon illuminated the major flaw with this method. Fundamental in the U.S. Constitution is the idea of checks and balances, which by the very nature of a congressional elected president, would be put in jeopardy (Peirce 39). In the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton stressed that unlike congress, or any other permanent body with duties beyond electing the president, the Electoral College would be free to act without influence (Hamilton). The fact was, if congress elected the president, bargains would be made between the two bodies, and their supporters, that would negate the value of separation of powers
While the framers soon understood that a system in which congress elected the president was not prudent, the second alternative, direct popular vote, had very little favor (Peirce 41). However, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson, did favor this system (Peirce 41). The position of these prominent men helped to dissuade many from favoring the congressional method, but was not enough for the direct vote system to take the day. Although Madison and others believed that since the president was to check congresses power against the people, that the people should elect him (Peirce 41). Nevertheless, most delegates believed that the people were not capable of choosing a president (Peirce 43). As opposed to a congressional election, multiple senators and representatives would not dilute voting power of the people. Moreover, congressional representatives lived closer to the people voting, and thus, the voters had access to their platforms.
The failure of the first two choices to gain favor led to the introduction and eventual adoption of the Electoral College system. Again, the debate of the framers mainly consisted of negative arguments of the other two choices, and even this system was voted down twice (Peirce 44). The first form that was discarded was one in which the state legislatures were to choose the electors, and the second form had direct vote choosing the electors. The favored version provided only that the state legislature had the power to decide how electors were chosen (Peirce 44). Thereafter, states went three ways in choosing their electors: the legislative system, where the state legislator chooses the electors; the winner take all method, where the popular vote was held and the winner took all electoral votes; and the district system, where electoral votes were allocated by congressional district (Glennon 12). So as it turns out, this system held onto for over two hundred years was not even overwhelmingly favored at the time of its adoption, and any consensus as to details was rejected.
Although the arguments for the Electoral College system mainly consisted of the notion that it was better than the others, some delegates found real value in the system itself. Alexander Hamilton expounded on the virtues and the goals of the Electoral College system in Federalist Paper No. 68. He states that in choosing a system to elect the president the delegates found it desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided and this end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished (sic) body, but to men chosen by the people for this special purpose (Hamilton No. 68). Hamilton goes on to write that it was equally desirable, that . . . election should be made by men most capable of analyzing . . . deliberation in making their choice (Hamilton No. 68). Hamilton believed that only a small number of persons . . . will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite . . . (Hamilton No. 68). Thus, one can ascertain from Hamilton s words, and other research that, the Electoral College system was adopted to preserve the checks and balances, allow the people a voice in the election of the president, but also to prevent voters without access to information on candidates from making uninformed choices. The latter of which may also be argued to really mean that some framers believed that for such an important election, the men created even more equal should have the responsibility of making a choice in the best interest of all.
Arguments in Support of the Electoral College
Arguments favoring the Electoral College are not limited to those against the other two choices, and the belief that the general public is ill-equipped to make such a decision. However, the second one, while seemingly contrary to the American way of life today, had some validity upon the founding of the nation. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the ability to ascertain necessary information concerning national candidates was hindered. Nevertheless, an explanation of modern technology is not necessary for one to understand that this argument is now without merit.
The Electoral College is deeply rooted in our federalist history and works toward all states, no matter of size, being included in the political process. The system forces candidates for president to campaign throughout the country instead of ignoring smaller states and only seeking to dominate the popular vote in the larger states. In this way, candidates are less inclined to offer deals to large population states at the expense of small population states. Further, one cannot forget that the U.S. is made of several states, each with its own rights. As such, the elimination of the Electoral College system would dilute those rights by erasing state lines contrary to founding principles of the country. Further, while the founding fathers did not envision the two party system, the Electoral College helps maintain it and prevent splintering such as those that have plagued Europe. Finally, with direct elections, a close election like the one of 2000 may have required an entire recount instead of just certain districts in one state.
Arguments for Change
For decades opponents of the Electoral College system have argued that a constitutional amendment was needed to change the method of electing the president to a direct vote (Abbott 32). In David Abbott s 1992 book, Wrong Winner: the coming debacle in the electoral college, he predicts that a president would soon be elected under the current system yet lack the popular vote. He argues that this will result in a president who lacks a mandate from the public, and thus, spends his presidency powerless in relation to the congress. Further, it is suggested that upon the election of president who lacks the popular support of the voters, the people will become disinterested in politics and future voter turn out will suffer. While the United States is yet to see if these grim prediction will actually come to pass, it can be argued that the failure of George W. Bush to garner the popular vote has made the majority of American voters, who cast their votes for Albert Gore, feel disenfranchised. Moreover, there are more concerns that the Electoral College must address before one can say that it is in fact the best system for electing the president of the United States in the twenty first century.
A major negative characteristic of the Electoral College system is that it is contrary to the country s democratic nature. After the United States Supreme Court held that one person – one vote was fundamental in congressional races, it is difficult to swallow that it is not in fact fundamental for the presidential race. There seems to be a glaring contradiction between what we believe to be the requirements of a fair election, and what the founding fathers have imposed upon twenty first century voters. Further, the Electoral College system fails to even serve its originally stated purposes. Unlike the days of the country s founding, the ability of average Americans to gain access to information about presidential candidates is even greater than their ability to access information about their local representatives. While most people do not have the time to get into see their local city council meeting, television, newspapers, and the Internet, provide a plethora of information on national candidates. Further, the implicit argument for the electoral system that average Americans do not have what it takes to make such a lofty decision is simply reprehensible and contrary to democratic principles. Finally, Hamilton s latter assertion is even further defeated by the fact that Electors are only used to cast a vote, and in fact do not make the choice themselves.
Next, while it argued that the present system forces national campaigning, the general ticket system actually allows campaigns to ignore significant portions of the population by cutting losses in states they have no chance of the winner take all victory ( Majority 521). This is further exasperated by the fact that only 49% of the nation usually votes, thus an outcome could theoretically only represent 12% of the nation s choice (Reichley 107). Finally, as people believe that they are not really voting for the president, they feel disenfranchised and fail to show up at the polls.
When all is said and done, the circumstances of today are not those of over two hundred years ago. The country s democracy has matured to a point where each citizen is capable of casting their vote in a presidential election. The underlying reasons for originally adopting the Electoral College system no longer form a reasonable foundation to support a system that is so contrary to democratic principles. Unlike what was envisioned by the framers, voters today are not electing Electors who in turn elect the president. Instead, it is the voters votes that elect the president, unfortunately though, under the Electoral College system, each vote is not equal. Therefore, the Electoral College system should be abolished, and the presidential election should conform to one person one vote principles.
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Reichley, James A. (1987) Elections American Style. Washington: Brookings Institution.
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