Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The issue isn’t the electoral college, but close elections

June 26, 2012 by Lara Brown


Barring the occurrence of a major unexpected event, the 2012 presidential election is going to be close.

For more than six weeks, Gallup’s polling has shown that President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney are each supported by about 45 percent of the electorate.

This deadlock isn’t likely to break until late October when the remaining 10 percent of the electorate settle on their choice for president—if these individuals decide to cast a ballot at all.

So, fasten your seat belts because we’re driving towards another “tie” or “near tie” in the national popular vote, meaning the Electoral College might again come under attack.

For when the votes are nearly evenly divided between the parties, the national popular vote winner may well lose the electoral vote of the states, as was the case in 1888 and 2000.

Although disgruntled partisans (i.e., Republicans post-1960 and Democrats post-2000) disparage the Electoral College as being unfair, it’s vital to remember that no one voting system or electoral method “satisfies all the conditions of fairness that have been proposed as reasonable and just,” as noted political scientist William H. Riker demonstrated).

Still the oft-heard complaint is that people are not represented equally.

While this may be true in an absolutist democratic sense (“one man equals one vote”), this not only misses the point of the Electoral College, but it also promotes a fallacious view of the American political system.

The Constitution established a republic, not a democracy. The Framers crafted different modes of selection for our different branches of government, so as to balance different interests.

James Madison explained in Federalist 39:

“The House of Representatives will derive its powers from the people of America; and the people will be represented in the same proportion…So far the government is NATIONAL, not FEDERAL. The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies; and these will be represented on the principle of equality in the Senate…So far the government is FEDERAL, not NATIONAL. The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society…From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many FEDERAL as NATIONAL features.”

“We the people” are supposed to be represented in Washington in a variety of ways—as national citizens in the House, as members of our states in the Senate, and as national citizens and members of our state by the president.

Further, in weighing a person’s vote by state, the Framers also sought to force presidents to represent a broad constituency (most of the country), rather than a deep one (only the highly populated states).

Several scholars have offered probably what is the best analogy on the topic that exists: the Electoral College is similar to the World Series—the winner must win the most runs in the most games, not just the largest number of total runs across all of the games.

The president, like the baseball team that prevails in the Series, has shown more than the ability to have a few impressive performances. As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 68,

“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”

The Electoral College is not the problem. And there is no need to make it one. The issue is that we’re a 50-50 nation and when that’s the situation, no selection method is going to satisfy everyone.

Lara M. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Her research interests include national elections, presidential aspirants, congressional incumbents and political scandals.

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