Keep the Electoral College

December 21, 2000 • Commentary

This week a majority of electors made George W. Bush the next president of the United States. Many Democrats complain that his victory, though constitutional, defies the spirit of “democracy” because Bush did not get a majority of the popular vote. Doesn’t democracy mean the candidate with the most votes wins?

The very question shows a lack of understanding of American political institutions. And if the “pure democracy” line were followed, it would encourage the abuse of power and the violation of individual rights.

James Madison said that writing a Constitution is hard work because you have to set up a government that is strong enough to control its citizens and yet limited in scope and powers. Madison and the other Founders feared unchecked power of any kind. They believed elections were the primary control on government. But they also knew that pure democracy – the unchecked will of the people – was as much a danger to liberty as any autocrat.

Our Constitution places manifold checks on political power, including the arbitrary will of the people. Power at the national level is split among the three branches, each reflecting a different constituency. Power is divided yet again between the national government and the states. Madison noted that these twofold divisions — the separation of powers and federalism — provided a “double security” for the rights of the people. The Electoral College fits well into this picture.

How does the Electoral College constrain political power? Direct election of the president would reflect the will of a majority. In contrast, the Electoral College provides representation for both the population at large and the states. It thereby tempers and limits the power of majority rule, which has two other advantages.

First, consider the effects of direct popular election of the president. We would probably see elections dominated by the most populous regions of the country or by several large metropolitan areas. In the 2000 election, for example, Vice President Gore could have put together a plurality or majority in the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and California.

The victims of direct elections would be regions too sparsely populated to merit the attention of presidential candidates. Pure democrats would not regret that. But I wonder if a large and diverse nation should write off whole parts of its territory? We should keep in mind the regional conflicts that trouble large and diverse nations like India, China and Russia. The Electoral College militates against the poison of regionalism by forcing presidential candidates to seek support nationwide. By making sure no state is left behind, it works against disunity.

Second, the Electoral College makes sure that the states count in presidential elections. As such, it strengthens their role in our federalist system—-a system worth preserving. Federalism is an important part of the constitutional effort to restrain power. But recently we have learned that devolving power to the “laboratories of democracy” fosters important policy innovations (e.g., welfare reform).

So, what about the principle of “one person, one vote”? Diane Feinstein, the senior senator from California, opined recently on “Larry King Live” that the Electoral College should be abolished since it violated “one person, one vote.” If that’s true, Ms. Feinstein and her fellow senators should start looking for new jobs.

In the Senate, a state like Montana, with 883,000 residents, gets the same number of senators as California, with 33 million people. That’s not “one person, one vote.” Consistency would require that if we abolish the Electoral College, we rid ourselves of the Senate as well. Are we ready to do that?

If the Founders had wished to create a “pure democracy,” they would have done so. They created instead what Madison called “a complex polity” to restrain government. If we abolish the Electoral College, we will take a step away from that constraining design and a step toward a plebiscitary presidency driven by unchecked majority rule.

About the Author