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 politicalinstitutions. And if the "pure democracy" line were followed, it wouldencourage the abuse of power and the violation of individual rights.
James Madison said that writing a Constitution is hard work because you haveto set up a government that is strong enough to control its citizens and yetlimited in scope and powers. Madison and the other Founders feared uncheckedpower of any kind. They believed elections were the primary control ongovernment. But they also knew that pure democracy – the unchecked will ofthe people – was as much a danger to liberty as any autocrat.
Our Constitution places manifold checks on political power, including thearbitrary will of the people. Power at the national level is split among thethree branches, each reflecting a different constituency. Power is dividedyet again between the national government and the states. Madison noted thatthese twofold divisions -- the separation of powers and federalism --provided a "double security" for the rights of the people. The ElectoralCollege fits well into this picture.
How does the Electoral College constrain political power? Direct election ofthe president would reflect the will of a majority. In contrast, theElectoral College provides representation for both the population at largeand 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. Wewould probably see elections dominated by the most populous regions of thecountry or by several large metropolitan areas. In the 2000 election, forexample, Vice President Gore could have put together a plurality or majorityin the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and California.
The victims of direct elections would be regions too sparsely populated tomerit the attention of presidential candidates. Pure democrats would notregret that. But I wonder if a large and diverse nation should write offwhole parts of its territory? We should keep in mind the regional conflictsthat trouble large and diverse nations like India, China and Russia. TheElectoral College militates against the poison of regionalism by forcingpresidential candidates to seek support nationwide. By making sure no stateis left behind, it works against disunity.
Second, the Electoral College makes sure that the states count inpresidential elections. As such, it strengthens their role in our federalistsystem—-a system worth preserving. Federalism is an important part of theconstitutional effort to restrain power. But recently we have learned thatdevolving power to the "laboratories of democracy" fosters important policyinnovations (e.g., welfare reform).
So, what about the principle of "one person, one vote"? Diane Feinstein, thesenior senator from California, opined recently on "Larry King Live" thatthe Electoral College should be abolished since it violated "one person, onevote." If that's true, Ms. Feinstein and her fellow senators should startlooking for new jobs.
In the Senate, a state like Montana, with 883,000 residents, gets the samenumber of senators as California, with 33 million people. That's not "oneperson, one vote." Consistency would require that if we abolish theElectoral College, we rid ourselves of the Senate as well. Are we ready todo that?
If the Founders had wished to create a "pure democracy," they would havedone so. They created instead what Madison called "a complex polity" torestrain government. If we abolish the Electoral College, we will take astep away from that constraining design and a step toward a plebiscitarypresidency driven by unchecked majority rule.