The electoral system protects our individual rights from a possible tyranny of the majority.
“The Constitution is a system of checks and balances the sole purpose of which is to protect the unalienable rights of individuals from the ebb and flow of democratic sentiment. The object of our constitutional republic is not to make everyone’s voice exactly equal, but rather to make everyone’s unalienable rights equally secure.” – John C. Greene
After many elections, there are often calls to abolish the electoral college method of choosing our president and vice president. We, the people, do not elect the president and vice president directly by popular vote. Instead, we elect a slate of “electors” who are pledged to particular candidates for president and vice president (24 states have laws that punish “faithless” electors, those who don’t honor their pledge). The manner in which each state selects electors is up to the state’s legislature. These electors meet on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December in each state capitol, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President.
An original proposal at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was that Congress select the president and vice president, but this was finally considered to make the president too beholden to Congress. The electoral college was a compromise between the big and small states and reflects the fact that our country is a union of states.
Each state has a number of electors equal to its Congressional representation (senators plus representatives). Also, the District of Columbia has three electors. In nearly all states, the winner of the popular vote in the state gets all the state’s electors.
Why not have a direct popular vote? Arguments have been that a direct popular vote would cause candidates to ignore rural areas and small states of the heartland and concentrate on the large population centers of the coasts. That same argument is put forth against the electoral method because it forces candidates to focus on “swing” states. For instance, it is possible to win the election by winning just eleven states and disregarding the rest of the country: California (55 votes), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15), and New Jersey (14) equal the currently required 270 electoral votes.
But, even with a “majority rule” popular vote, the majority may not rule.
For instance, in six postwar elections–1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000–no candidate had a popular majority. In the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, Bush got 47.9% of the nationwide popular vote versus Gore’s 48.4%. Neither got the majority of voters. In 1992, Bill Clinton won with only 43% of the popular vote (George H.W. Bush got 37.5%; Ross Perot got 19%). This was similar to the 1968 race in which Nixon won against Humphrey. Nixon got 43.4% of popular vote, Humphrey got 42.7% and George Wallace got 13.5%. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won 48.8% of the popular vote (a plurality, not a majority), while Donald Trump won 46.7% of the popular vote.
John C. Greene, in the article linked to above, provides an explanation by analogy:
Just in terms of principle, democracy versus a republic, consider a sports analogy. Who wins a baseball game? Answer: The team that scores the most runs. Who wins the World Series? Answer: The team that wins the most games.
In the 1960 World Series, the Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27, including three blowout wins of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0. But the Pirates won four close games, 6-4, 3-2, 5-2, and 10-9. The winner of the World Series is not, and has never been, determined by who scores the most runs. The winner of the World Series is the team that wins four games. The Pirates, who scored only half as many runs as the Yankees, won the World Series in 1960. Similarly, the winner of the presidency in our American republic is not, and has never been, the individual with the most popular votes. The winner in our presidential elections is the individual who wins the most states with a minimum of 270 electoral votes. It’s not about some ephemeral fairness; it’s about a tested, true, and wise system of preserving the rights of all in a tumultuous and imperfect world.
Each state of our republic is its own game. The electoral college balances the will of the people with the will of the states.
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