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THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE: PROS AND CONS

Every four years, the Electoral College enjoys a fleeting moment of fame. But the impact of the college on presidential elections is far greater and more controversial than its brief life indicates. It has been the subject of much discussion and has both supporters and critics. Some of the arguments for and against the college are presented here.

Opponents of the college call it undemocratic. They say it functions in contradiction to the one-person, one vote principle and that the president should be elected by the direct popular vote of the people. They point out that the distribution of electoral votes in each state is determined by the number of members it has in the House of Representatives plus the number of members of the Senate, which is always two. Each state, therefore. has at least three votes, even though on a straight population basis, some states might be entitled to only one or two. They further argue that this distribution of electoral votes over-represents people in rural states.

Supporters argue that the principle of one-person, one-vote should not pertain to the Electoral College, just as it does not pertain to the U.S. Senate. They point out that the college was designed to underscore the federal nature of the U.S. government. The college, they argue, recognizes and embodies the delicate balance between the powers of the states and the powers of the central government. To abolish the Electoral College in favor of a nationwide popular election for the president would strike at the heart of the federal structure laid out in the Constitution and would lead to the nationalization of our central government--to the detriment of the states. As to the issue that the Electoral College over-represents rural populations, proponents respond that the United States Senate, with two seats per state regardless of population, over represents rural populations far more dramatically.

Critics charge that the Electoral College, with its "winner-take-all mechanism, allows for the election of a president who has not won in the popular vote. A minority president (one without the absolute majority of the popular vote) has been elected fifteen times in this century including Wilson in both 1912 and 1916, Truman in 1948, Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 and Bush in 2000. Opponents also point to the risk of the "faithless electors." (Electors who do not vote for the candidate they are pledge to vote for). There have been seven such electors in this century, one as recently as 1988.

Supporters of the Electoral College argue that it contributes to the cohesiveness of the country by requiring a candidate to demonstrate a distribution of popular support to be elected president. Without the college, they point out, presidents would be selected either through the domination of one populous region over the others or through the domination of large metropolitan areas over rural ones. As things stand now, no one region contains the absolute majority (270) of electoral votes required to elect a president. Thus, there is an incentive for candidates to pull together coalitions of states and regions rather than exacerbate regional differences.

Electoral College critics are concerned that it has a role in depressing voter turnout. Their argument is that, since each state has the same number of electoral votes regardless of voter turnout, there is no incentive in the states to encourage voter participation. Instead there may be an incentive to discourage participation so as to enable a minority of citizens to decide the electoral vote for the whole state.

Proponents point out that the Electoral College enhances the status of minority groups because the votes of even a small minority in a state may make the difference between winning all of that state's electoral votes or none. Since minority groups are concentrated in those states which have the most electoral votes, they assume an importance to presidential candidates well out of proportion to their number.

Opponents argue that the Electoral College system makes it extremely difficult for third parties or independent candidates to make much of a showing. By failing to reflect the national popular will, it reinforces a two-party system that restricts the choices available to the electorate.

Proponents of the Electoral College, however, argue that it contributes to the political stability of the nation by encouraging a two-party system. This is true because it is so difficult for a new or minor party to obtain enough popular votes to have a chance of winning the presidency. Thus we end up with two large political parties which reflect the center of public opinion rather than dozens of smaller parties catering to divergent views. Such a system forces political coalitions within the political parties rather than within the government.

Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist, explained why the Electoral College was established. He said, "It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the President. This end will be answered by committing the right of making this choice not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture. It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.

A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment to so complicated an investigation."

Over the years, some of those who basically support the Electoral College system, as well as those who think it works badly, have suggested changes in the system by which we elect our president. And so the debate goes on.

Sources for this article: Pamphlet, "Who Will Elect the President", published by the LWVUS Education Fund and the Electoral College, " A Brief History of the Electoral College."

 
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