Guest Essayist: Tara Ross

The Electoral College may be one of America’s most misunderstood institutions.  How often do you hear a media outlet or school textbook gratuitously bash our presidential election system as “outdated” or “archaic”? It’s said to be a relic of the horse and buggy era—a process created by slaveholding Founders who didn’t trust the people to govern themselves.

Shouldn’t such a broken process go the way of the rotary telephone?

Actually, no. The “problem” with the Electoral College isn’t the institution itself. The problem is that the media’s approach, combined with spotty teaching in schools, has left the general electorate remarkably ill-informed about its presidential election process.

A little education reveals the truth: The Founders had principled reasons for creating the Electoral College. They didn’t create it just because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet! To the contrary, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were a remarkably well-educated lot. They were students of history who knew the works of such philosophers as John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu. Many were lawyers or ex-legislators.

In fact, when Thomas Jefferson read the names of the delegates to the Convention, he described them as “an assembly of demi-gods.”

These delegates were well-versed in the successes and failures of other political systems, and they wanted to avoid the mistakes that had been made in other countries. Moreover, they understood human nature. They knew that people are fallible and that power corrupts.

This eminently qualified group of men understood how hard it would be to protect freedom in the face of all these challenges. They were determined to make it happen anyway.

With that background in mind, perhaps the most important thing to understand about the Electoral College—and the Constitution in general—is that the Founders were not trying to create a PURE democracy. They wanted to be self-governing, of course. They had just fought an entire Revolution in part because they had no representation in Parliament. The principles of self-governance were very important to them. On the other hand, they knew that, as a matter of history, pure democracies have a tendency to implode.

Our second President, John Adams, once observed that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” A signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, stated, “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils.” Another signer, John Witherspoon, agreed: “Pure democracy cannot subsist long, nor be carried far into the department of state—it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.”

In short, mob rule can be very dangerous.

Think about it. In a pure democracy, 51% of the people can rule the other 49% all the time, without question. Imagine what a mob mentality can do in the wake of an event such as 9-11. In fear or anger or immediate emotion, a bare majority could enact any law it wanted to, regardless of its impact on the other 49%.  Even very sizable minorities can be tyrannized in such a system. Religious freedoms and civil liberties can easily be infringed.

The Founders wanted to avoid that situation at all costs.

What, then, were they to do? How could they create a Constitution that allowed the people to be self-governing, even as they erected hurdles to stop (or at least slow down) irrational, bare majorities? How could minority political interests, especially the small states, be protected from the tyranny of the majority?

In other words, what constitutional provisions would allow majorities to rule, but would also require them to take the needs of the minority into account?

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention solved the problem by creating a Constitution that combines democracy (self-governance) with federalism (states’ rights) and republicanism (deliberation and compromise). This is why we have a Senate (one state, one vote) and a House (one person, one vote). It is why our government is divided into three co-equal branches: executive, legislative and judicial. It is why we have supermajority requirements to do things like amend the Constitution. It is why we have presidential vetoes.

And it is why we have an Electoral College.

When the checks and balances in our Constitution are respected, they enable us to accomplish the near-impossible: be self-governing, even as we avoid mob rule and majority tyranny.

Tomorrow’s post will discuss the logistics of the Electoral College. As implemented, is the system still serving the purposes that it was created to serve?

Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College. More information about Tara can be found at or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

12 replies
  1. kohler
    kohler says:

    Pure democracy is a form of government in which people vote on all policy initiatives directly.

    Guaranteeing the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes and the majority of Electoral College votes, as the National Popular Vote bill would, would not make us a pure democracy.

    A constitutional republic does not mean we should not and cannot guarantee the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes. The candidate with the most votes wins in every other election in the country.

    Popular election of the chief executive does not determine whether a government is a republic or democracy.

    With National Popular Vote, all of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80%+ of the states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    With National Popular Vote, the United States would still be a republic, in which citizens continue to elect the President by a majority of Electoral College votes by states, to represent us and conduct the business of government.

    Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

  2. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    It kills me when I hear people (especially elected and government officials) call our Nation a democracy! WE ARE A REPRESENTATIVE REPUBLIC!! When I was in high school (somewhere just after the Dark Ages), I wrote a paper actually supporting the elimination of the ELectoral College, hard to believe. Our form of government and founding prinicples MUST be taught in our schools again. There is NO appreciation for our government or its founding principles.

  3. Rick
    Rick says:

    perhaps if more school would mandate reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, its phrase “… and for the republic for which it stands…” would help remind everyone we are a republic.

  4. Barry
    Barry says:

    The government and the world are so corrupt now that I do not want somebody else voting in my place. How many times has the people elected one person for president and electoral college elected somebody else? Some states have several electoral votes and some have very few. Does that mean the states with the bigger population elect the president?

  5. JoeKidd
    JoeKidd says:

    Related: Should Majorities Decide Everything? [Quoting] “Under a democratic system of government, how is an individual protected from the tyranny of the majority? According to Professor Munger, democratic constitutions consist of two parts: one defining the limits within which decisions can be made democratically, and the other establishing the process by which decisions will be made. In the United States Constitution, the individual is protected from majority decisions. Professor Munger warns, however, that these protections are slowly being stripped away as American courts of law fail to recognize the limits of what can be decided by majority rule. Professor Munger uses the case of Kelo v. New London to illustrate the dangers of confusing majority rule with a democratic system.” [End quote] h/t LearnLiberty(dot)org

  6. Phillip DeVrou
    Phillip DeVrou says:

    I agree that a Republic is preferred over pure Democratic government. But the Electoral College as administered today is not a Republic or representative. Its been redesigned to serve both political parties.

    As Kohler says, Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80%+ of the states … I live in Louisiana and we are understandably ignore because our 8 votes are inconsequential to the result.

    The problem of battleground states is accentuated when one considers that candidates ignore the large, default red/blue states too. California has recently been decidedly Democratic. So Republicans give it only token attention. Likely the opposite for Texas. But CA’s 55 votes were proportioned according to the popular results, or maybe even the districts, candidates would fight everywhere for everyone’s vote.

    The math of winner take all does not work. CA had 13 million voters in 2012. The difference between receiving 28 vs. 27 EC votes is just 236,000, or 1.82% of voters. Yet the “winner” gets all 55 votes. Pushed to its extreme 6,500,001 votes for candidate D vs, 6,499,999 votes for candidate R means 2 voters controlled 55, or 10.22% of all the EC votes. Meanwhile, suppose 1,500,000 of LA’s 2,000,000 voters voted for Candidate R. IN LA candidate R received 1,000,000 more votes than candidate D, but only received 8 EC votes. On a proportional basis the two CA voters controlled 55 EC votes, or 27.5 EC votes per voter whereas LA voters controlled 0.0000008 EC votes per voter.

    The founders assumed the EC would function much like the Constitutional Congresses did where representatives would represent their districts first and their states second. The current EC does not function that way.

  7. Brad Sanders
    Brad Sanders says:

    Wrong. The founders came up with the electoral college because small population states did not want to lose power to large, populous states. Some delegates may have been concerned about mob rule, but all delegates were concerned with maintaining influence for their state, and the slave-holding states were certainly concerned about that!


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