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
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
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