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 How often do you hear a media outlet or school textbook gratuitously bash our presidential election system as “outdated” or “archaic”?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 www.taraross.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.