Big question: Why do we still have the Electoral College? Established in 1787, the Electoral College is as old as the U. S. Constitution. Marquette Magazine asked Dr. Paul Nolette, assistant professor in the department of political science, why, after 225 years, we still use the Electoral College system to elect our president instead of the popular vote? Turn on your favorite TV news program and youБre likely to hear about how each presidential candidate is faring among БWal-Mart Moms,Б БNASCAR Dads,Б or another critical voting group. As Americans were reminded in 2000, however, this presidential election will ultimately be decided by the 538 members of the Electoral College. Why is the Electoral College part of the Constitution? And why does it still exist today? During the debates over the Constitution, Alexander HamiltonБs defense of the Electoral College suggested that electors would bring greater wisdom to presidential selection. БA small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations,Б he wrote in БFederalist #68. Б Several of the ConstitutionБs framers viewed the Electoral College as a protection of state power. Individual states would send electors who would presumably prevent the election of a candidate threatening to centralize power in the federal government. Many of the original justifications for the Electoral College have less force today. Other constitutional features meant to protect the states have since changed. The 17th Amendment, for example, shifted the selection of senators from state legislatures to popular election. The notion that electors have better deliberative capacity than the general populace is now passц, especially since electors today are partisan activists who commit themselves to a candidate well before Election Day.
So why do we keep the Electoral College? One argument is that the Electoral College ensures more attention to less populous states otherwise at risk of being ignored by presidential candidates. If people directly elected the president, candidates would focus their attention on population-rich states like California, New York and Texas rather than smaller states such as New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin. The problem is that under the current system, the vast majority of states are already ignored by candidatesБББincluding not only most of the smallest but several of the largest as well. The lionБs share of the attention goes to an increasingly small number of swing states that could realistically favor either candidate. This may be to our benefit here in the Badger State, but not so for those in Nebraska, Rhode Island or any of the 40 other non-competitive states. Perhaps a better contemporary argument for the Electoral College is that it has a tendency to produce clear winners. This contrasts with the popular vote, which remains relatively close in nearly all presidential contests. In 2008, for example, Obama won only 53 percent of the popular vote but more than two-thirds of the electoral vote. The Electoral College, as it typically does, helped to magnify the scope of the incoming presidentБs victory. For someone taking on the highest-profile job in the world, this additional legitimacy boost may be no small thing.
The electoral college, despite being a system that not too many Americans fully understood prior to Tuesday night, has not been popular this past week. And honestly, with good reason. Considering how this electionВ put the system s problems on full display and ultimately left us with an incompetent sexual predator who ran his campaign on fear mongering and bigotry for president, now more than ever, it s worth discussing.
It s not like all the historic and systemic problems with the electoral college never existed prior to this, or that there haven t been plenty of think pieces and critiques of the system since the dawn of time (or, like, 2000 at least). The fact is that of the last four general elections, twice we ve seen the winner of the popular vote lose the election due to the system in place в in В votes as of Tuesday. Revisionist historians often cast the motives behind the electoral college as a desire for balance of power between big and small states of vastly different population sizes. President-elect Donald Trump, who took to Twitter earlier this week to do a and sing the electoral college s praises, certainly appeared to believeВ this was the case. The reality, however, as Akhil Reed Amar atВ Time notes, is that the electoral college was never about balancing representation of small and big states, but the North and South. В In a direct popular election, floated by northerners at the Philadelphia convention of 1787, the North would crushВ the South, whose huge population of slavesВ could not vote. The electoral college also appeared to mitigate, or at least help to delay the process of dealing with slavery, a hugely contentious issue between the North and South that the founding fathers knew was bound to erupt eventually. The electoral college, at least on some level, enabled this, and for the first 32 of the Constitutionвs first 36 years of being ratified, a white slaveholder won the presidency in a troubling commentary on the electoral college s bend favoring slavery and racial oppression. If slavery and balancing the interests of the North and South were the justifications for the electoral college in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it s difficult to imagine what the justifications for this system are today.
Just as many have come to argue that apparently deeply inaccurate polling preceding by affecting how and whether or not people voted, it could be argued that the electoral college in itself is a form of mass voter suppression. When your overwhelmingly blue or red state reaches a certain quota of votes, your ballotВ becomes virtually uselessВ and the knowledge of this keepsВ many from voting. В This could be oneВ explanation forВ critically important election out. They feel their values and actions don t matter, because unless they live in a swing state, this is often the case. In many ways, the electoral college deeply undermines the premise of one man, one vote and the notions of equality this law/catchy slogan is meant to promote. The value of your vote is ultimately determined by the state you live in and the political leanings and decisiveness of your state. Watching Clinton s popular vote victory continue to surge a week after the election, and knowing that because of the state you live in, your vote essentially holds no weight, is an indescribably shitty feeling that will more than likely dictate how eligible voters vote (and whether or not they vote at all) in elections to come. I have struggled this whole week to decipher some possible benefits to electing Trump, and maybe, just maybe, the dialogue that his victory has inspired about the fucked up nature of the electoral college could count as one. After all, California Senator Barbara Boxer introduced, and while efforts to overturn an institution our nation was essentially founded on are likely to be in vain, people are taking action. We have to start somewhere, and it s a huge deal that we re seeing real, consequential legislation being proposed, and having this discussion at all.