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Constitution Day: Electoral College Edition!


election-map-viewed-by-candidates(photo credit)

Each year on September 17, federal law requires schools, colleges and universities to observe Constitution Day.  Over the years, we have done this at Trinity by posing questions about the Constitution and soliciting community opinions for public inclusion on this blog.  This year’s question:  Should we amend the U.S. Constitution to abolish the Electoral College?  Why or Why not? 

We took a straw poll of the Trinity community and these are the results:


Below are some well-formulated arguments Pro and Con abolishing the Electoral College:

From Dr. Dennis Farley, Economics

Proposals to eliminate the Electoral College come up from time to time.  So far, our republic has been lucky enough to dodge them.  The framers of the Constitution wanted a republican form of government, but they had a healthy distrust of the people at large as decision makers for the nation.  The whole thrust of the Bill of Rights, for example, was to limit the power of a majority to dictate the rights of individuals or groups in the minority.  The method of selecting the chief executive, in Article 2, Section 1, was similarly influenced by a suspicion that direct election might not produce very good results.

There are two reasons I see why the Electoral College, arcane though it may be, is worth retaining. 

  1. The Electoral College is a potential bulwark against the election of someone truly not fit to be President.

Hamilton (in Federalist, No. 68) thought that the mere existence of the Electoral College would assure that scam artists and criminals would not be able to make it through the process.  The people would express their preferences by voting, but States would then appoint electors.  These electors would give the preferences of the people great weight but would then use their good judgment in casting their votes.  Direct election would have no such filter to prevent a popular scoundrel from coming out on top.  Our impending election suggests that Hamilton may have been too optimistic. 

It may seem a low probability event, but suppose that, after the popular vote in November but before the College would meet in December, a candidate for President were revealed to be a serial murderer.  In such a case, the electors would be able to vote for someone else, since they are free to vote their consciences, regardless of any pledges made during the popular vote.

One can argue that impeachment is the remedy for such a situation, but impeachment is a long and costly process.  In the meantime, do you want the serial murderer to be making decisions?

  1. The Electoral College maintains a winner-take-all structure for the popular vote State by State.

States are free to set up the rules for how electors are appointed.  Most States have chosen to appoint all the electors associated with the candidate who gets the most votes in that State.  Thus, each State contest is basically winner take all.  (Maine and Nebraska do this by Congressional district, with adjustments for Statewide results).

This is a good thing.  It maintains the perception that presidential winners are favored by a majority of the people.  Most of the time the winner of the popular vote also wins the most electoral votes.  Anomalies like Gore vs. Bush in 2000 are rare.

“Winner take all” also prevents the further fragmentation of our body politic.  Imagine for a moment what proportional allocation of electors, or direct election via the popular vote, would mean for future elections.  Knowing that one could get achieve notoriety on a national stage by capturing a few percent of the popular vote, splinter parties would proliferate.  There might never again be a majority President. 

Sorry to be so long-winded, but I have some strong views on this question.  The Electoral College should be retained.  You may view it as an outdated block on the will of the people.  I view it as a potential safeguard to the republic’s very existence.  And, in fact, most of the time the will of the people will be reflected in the Electoral College result.

At a time when the major parties’ methods for selecting candidates have broken down (the system of primaries is to blame here), I am loath to even discuss eliminating a safeguard that could protect us from a real disaster.

From Martha Molina, Assistant Director of Financial Aid:

Yes.  I believe that we should amend the U.S. Constitution to abolish the Electoral College because I believe that the people should elect the new president not a handful of states. 

I am basing this assertion on the following:  The truth is that all people that are elected to higher offices cannot do it with the help of certain groups of people that can influence other voters as well.  This doesn’t mean that these candidates are not honest or do not have good character (although some can’t disguised who they really are).  It’s just a fact that you need votes in your favor to win and a good campaign strategy (as in any strategy) is to get people to think that your ideas are better than your opponent. People will always think “what’s in it for me?”  Therefore, for a candidate to win the support of the people or groups he/she desires, the candidate must demonstrate (usually by official/unofficial/subtle/inferred promises) that he/she is the candidate that will make the elector’s desire come true.   

What does this have to do with the Electoral College?  A lot! Because the candidates will campaign and try to seek the favor of the states that will bring them the most electoral votes. I believe that the responsibility has to be with the people as a whole, not with some states.  For example, we have candidate X and Y. 

If a state “A” has a population of 10 million and 10 electoral votes and state “B” has a population 6 million and 6 electoral votes. Let’s say that only 3 million people vote from state A (1.7 million for “X” and 1.3 million for “Y”) so state “A” declares X the winner.  Now for state “B”, let’s say that 5 million people vote (1 million for “X” and 4 million for “Y”). 

If we total these numbers, candidate “X” will win 10 Electoral College votes with 2.7 million votes in his favor while candidate “Y” will lose since he only would have 6 Electoral College votes even though he won the population vote with 5.3 million votes –which almost double the number of votes for candidate “X”.   To me this is not democracy; democracy is the will of the people.  If this were to be a race between 2 states, then the winner clearly would not be the people that took the time to cast their votes to elect the best person to represent them.  There’s always going to be a good argument for each side; however if the question is does the Electoral College represents “We, the people”, then the answer is a resounding “No!”

From Dr. Carlota Ocampo, Trinity’s Provost:

I am not a political scientist, but I have grasped an important foundational principle of our American system:  checks and balances.  I appreciate checks and balances as an added layer of protections that shore up our democratic processes, and make what could be a fragile system, strong.

The electoral college is a good example of checks and balances.  Though three of the four Presidents who lost the popular vote but won the electoral were Republicans (the fourth being John Adams, our Federalist second President) I do not see this as a partisan issue.  I agree with Jason Brennan, the author of “Opinion: The Electoral College is anti-democratic—and that’s a good thing” which you posted below (2016: that “[America’s founders] worried that democratic polities were prone to fits of passion. They might be overcome by prejudice and swayed by populist demagogues … a series of checks and balances and a multistep process [could] slow down the decision-making process with the hope that cool heads will prevail.”

The hope that cool heads will prevail!  We have seen, in this election, the danger of demagoguery and the chaos of hot-headedness.  Psychology (and history) tells us that group behavior can supercede individual critical thinking when emotions run high.  Group decisions are often poorer than those each member might make individually and outside of the group’s influence.  Hitler’s rise to leadership was the result of democratic processes, after all, Brennan reminds.  The irony here is that a departure from the pure democracy of a popular vote – the electoral college – actually enhances our ability to enjoy the benefits of that democracy.

In endorsing the electoral college, I realize that MY candidate may lose the popular vote and win the Presidency (in fact, this has happened!).  And yes, I was sore.  But the ultimate winner is the continuation of the American experiment – an experiment which, so far, has produced a strong and stable life for many of the world’s citizens.

My vote:  for the electoral college!

And for extra credit, in refusing to hear the Garland nomination, the Senate is not only failing to uphold its sworn duty, it is engaging in exactly the kind of hot-headed political machinations that makes checks and balances necessary.  The Senate is proving my point.

Additional Comments from the Straw Poll

  • Members of the Electoral College can be influenced by wealthy corporations or individuals who would only support the presidential candidate that proposes policies that would benefit them and not the mass population. In the past it may have been a safeguard to select the president, but in current times it is more of a safeguard for the rich to maintain their status and power.
  • The Electoral College, most times, is not a true representation of who the people want in office. It makes me wonder if “freedom”, in its purest definition, was seen as an actuality in the development of our republic, or was the promise of freedom the old ‘carrot attached to a string trick’, used to lure unsuspecting, under-educated, desperate for change, poor people to believe that their voice and opinion mattered?
  • Checks and balances like the electoral college are the foundation of American democracy, and are important to preserving a broader democratic process.
  • In a government for the people by the people every vote should count equally.
  • No, because this is not a TRUE decision made by the American public. Americans should have a role in the presidential decision–the Electoral College disallows this role.
  • The Electoral College is based on populations of each state. While it is not perfect, it does motivate candidates to campaign in most states, and pay attention to the different issues in each state or region. We are a very diverse country in many ways, including by region, and the state-based Electoral College helps ensure that regional differences are addressed by the candidates. I think it also keeps them on a more even keel – if we had a simple majority vote, I think this campaign season would be even more chaotic, reckless.
  • The idea behind democracy is supposed to give the people power to choose their own president. Unfortunately with the electoral college, that power is being taken away from us because we are voting indirectly and the majority vote doesn’t really count. Ultimately, the electors are making a decision for us, which defeats the purpose of democracy.
  • Trump currently has the popular vote and if we were to abolish the Electoral College our country could go into serious turmoil.
  • The Electoral College is far from perfect, but it reflects our system of representation by both states and the people. I am all for adjusting or amending the process for fairness, but we should not abolish the entire system.
  • The Electoral College allows for checks and balances.

Thanks for participating in this discussion!  If you would like to add your voice, please offer a comment in the comment box below, or vote in the survey by clicking on this link.

Below is the information and context I posted in my original email message to the campus community about the Electoral College discussion:

What is the Electoral College?

 No, it’s not a degree-granting university.  It is a body created by the Constitution of the United States to elect the president of the United States.

Wait.  Don’t “We, the People” elect the president of the United States?

 Well, yes, indirectly.  Those famous Founding Fathers were actually somewhat conservative men who distrusted the will of the people generally, and were definitely afraid that majority rule could create problems for the then-new nation.  So, among many weird restrictions they created to hedge their bets about the usefulness of full democracy, they created this additional step for electing presidents.

When you go to the polls on November 8 (or earlier if your state allows early voting), you will cast your vote for president of the U.S., but in fact, you will be electing members of the Electoral College from your state.  Each state gets the same number of electors as the number of Senators and Congresspeople in that state.  (DC is considered a state for this purpose, and though we have no senators, we actually do get 3 electoral votes — 1 for our non-voting Congressional seat and 2 as if we had senators — wouldn’t it be great if we had real senators, though?  That’s another question…)

So, bottom line, the Electoral College has 538 votes apportioned in the same way as the U.S. House and Senate members represent the states.  A president must receive 270 electoral votes to win the election.

This is the reason why presidential candidates spend a lot of time in only few states — “battleground states” like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and others with a lot of electoral votes that might possibly “swing” to one side or the other with intense campaigning.

But what if a presidential nominee wins a majority of the popular vote?  Isn’t that enough to be elected president?

 No.  In the Year 2000, Democratic Nominee Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, giving the presidency to George W. Bush.  That was the fourth time in American history a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election because of the Electoral College.  (Another Constitutional question:  the Supreme Court ultimately decided the disputed 2000 election, showing that a full Supreme Court is very important for the balance of our national governance system.  But right now, the Supreme Court has only 8 members, not the required 9, because the Senate refuses to take action on President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.  Is the U.S. Senate abridging its Constitutional duty by failing to hold hearings on Garland?  I don’t give extra points but welcome comments on this question.)

So, should “We, the People” start a movement to amend the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College?

See The Electoral College is Anti-Democratic — and That’s a Good Thing

See New York Times:  Where U.S. Presidential Votes Really Count – The Electoral College

See Nate Silver’s essay:  Would Al Gore have won in 2000 without the Electoral College?

See the current Electoral Map of the United States

electoralcollegemap2016(photo credit)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: