Electoral College Vote: The Real Reason We Pick the President This Way


The 2012 presidential race will officially conclude Monday, when Electoral College voters will cast ballots for the direct election of the president of the United States. The voters, ordinary citizens hailing from all walks of life, will congregate at their state capitals to reflect their states’ election results in ballots that will be opened by Vice President Joe Biden on January 6 before both houses of Congress. When he reads aloud the results, President Obama will then officially be reelected president, and inaugurated at noon on January 20.

Little else in the Constitution’s procedural direction has generated controversy as this method of election has. The framers of the Constitution debated the method of popular representation at length, considering issues ranging from the logistical (immobility of average voters), to the strategic (the three-fifths clause) to the philosophical. Of these three and all the other elements in the Founders’ debates over popular election, it is that latter that has proved to be the most resilient controversy.

For all the practical considerations of proctoring a democracy in a large, diverse nation (Federalist 14 famously discusses the unwieldy size of a totally unified United States) modern Americans still feel stung by the decision made at the Constitution’s drafting to protect against the over-influence of dense, like-minded pockets of voters. The Framers, wary of special interests and intermixing between the branches, favored an Electoral College insulated from Congress.

On the topic of what Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority,” they also saw the need to mitigate the influence of the unwashed masses in pure popular sovereignty. Madison’s sales pitch on the senate in Federalist 63 nicely expressed the sentiment that handily justified the Electoral College as well:

“Such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions…there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career…mediated by the people against themselves.”

The concern has been variously seen as paternalistic; well-founded; logistically wise (autocracy by referendum, which would only have been possible with technology available in the past few decades, was probably best taken off the table); condescending; elitist. Some modern proponents of abolishing the Electoral College method detect an agenda in the last of these.

“The founders…were concerned, in the day of the wooden printing press, that voters would not have enough information to choose candidates,” lamented the New York Times in 2008. (But your guy won!) And then there are those who would wholeheartedly counter-lament that not much has changed in that department since then. The logistical argument  is often tackled, but the source of the outrage is a lingering resentment over being denied a modicum of trust by the Founders.

This debate is very much alive. Are average Americans collectively competent to elect their representation directly? Does the Electoral College actually magnify the public’s will in the right places, or just ensure that the presidential race reduces to a race for president of Ohio?

The Electoral College debate is our uniquely active engagement directly with the Founders. Save for the codification of slavery, what else in the Constitution has been so vibrantly challenged in that document? While the principles and freedoms enshrined in our founding charter have been popularly accepted as dogmatically beyond reproach, the resistance of the Framers to grant power directly to the people continues to be questioned.

The philosophical debate has changed little since the concept of entrusting representation to landed elite was first floated. There are still blocs of voters seduced by special interests and provincial thinking, as then. Yet there has never been a consensus on changing this important element of republican rule. So, being that today is the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the voters will still gather at their state houses and consummate what — this time — was indeed the will of the people.