We discussed the Electoral College in connection with presidential candidates proving eligibility to be listed on ballots–voters technically are not voting for them, but for the people who will vote for them. The founding fathers wanted intelligent educated citizens to vote for people they knew personally, and it would not be possible for every voter to meet with every presidential candidate.
We can argue whether that’s a better or worse idea; it’s a moot point now, because citizens no longer know the electors, knowing only media images of the candidates. But there is another factor in the Electoral College system that we did not address, which in this election has been highlighted: it is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the election, thanks to the electoral college system. It has happened before; the Democrats are still stinging from the loss of Florida to George W. Bush which swung the election to the Republicans despite Al Gore’s stronger vote count nationwide. Now Mitt Romney might take the popular vote but lose the election due to the electoral college. If it happens, if it can happen, should we not eliminate this dinosaur that prevents the people from choosing their President?
Some have suggested doing exactly that, by a shortcut method: have states individually pass laws that give all of their electors to whichever candidate takes the majority of the national vote. If even a few states did this, coming from each side or particularly from the controversial swing states, once the votes were counted nationally it would trigger an electoral boost to the man who took the majority that would guarantee him the office. Those touting it think it a wonderful idea. Yet the implications ought to be considered.
It means that Massachusetts voters might overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but if Republicans turned out in great numbers in the midwest and tipped the national count, Massachusetts would be sending Republican electors to the Electoral College. The same thing could happen to strongly Republican states. Do we care? Perhaps we should.
Part of the concept of the Electoral College is that the people do not pick the President. In a very real sense the President is picked not by the people but by the States. Each state is given a number of Electoral votes equal to the number of members it sends to the House of Representatives plus two for its Senators. Yet because the number of representatives sent to the House is based on population adding two (for the Senators) biases the system slightly in favor of smaller states: voters in Wyoming, with three Electors and a population of 563,626, have more impact individually than those in California, with fifty-five electors and a population of 37,253,956, because there are fewer voters per elector. But the original vision was that Congressmen were picked by the people, Senators by the States, and Electors by some blend of the two, and the States were given the power to determine how their electors would be picked. Originally many states had their own state legislatures appoint Electors, and there was no presidential ballot–you voted for the state legislators who picked the Electors who chose the President.
And in 1969 when Democratic Senator Birch Bayh proposed a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Electoral College, the argument raised against it was that it took power away from the States. To our founding fathers, and still to many in this country particularly in southern states, a State is its own country joined by treaty to forty-nine other countries–very like the European Union, only further along toward unification. In this mindset, it is absolutely right for New Jersey to have a voice in the selection of the President, not as 8,791,894 individual citizens but as the unified State of New Jersey, one of the voting entities having its own existence within the United States.
So again, the founding fathers never intended that you would vote for the President of the United States. They intended that your state would decide how to pick the people who would choose him on behalf of the state. Today all fifty states hold popular elections for the electors, all but two in a winner-take-all election (Nebraska and Maine changed to voting district representation late in the twentieth century). Talk of “fixing” the system so that it more evenly represents the individual voters is doing exactly what the Constitution was attempting to avoid: stripping the States of their power as States.
Whether we still want States to be represented in this way is perhaps the issue, but we must understand that it is the issue if we are to discuss it.