Archived Story

Three cheers for the Electoral College

Published 10:26pm Monday, November 5, 2012

As you watch the U.S. map fill with red and blue tonight during the television networks’ wall-to-wall election coverage, prepare for an education — or re-education — about the United States Electoral College.

With a reporter from Australia on our staff, the Suffolk News-Herald newsroom had the opportunity to debate the relative merits of the Electoral College versus a pure democracy on Monday. Especially in light of pundits’ growing consensus during the past week that there’s likely to be a split between popular and electoral votes for president today, it was an enlightening discussion.

Why, after all, would America have such an institution as part of its democratic process?

To begin with — and it may be surprising to many Americans — our Founding Fathers were not great fans of a direct democracy. John Adams, the nation’s second president, wrote, “Remember, democracy never lasts for long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” The Founding Fathers were clearly fearful of the dangers of tyranny, even the tyranny of the majority. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote: “Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

In a nation the size of the United States, even at the time when its Constitution was drafted, our Founding Fathers recognized that some mechanism was necessary to check the voting power in a direct democracy of the largest cities and states of the nation. How could the agrarian interests of the country’s crop-producing states, for instance, ever compete with the urban interests of its big cities? The answer was the Electoral College.

Just as the Founders envisioned and enshrined checks and balances in the government by dividing it into three co-equal branches — the Legislative, the Judicial and the Executive — they set up checks and balances in the selection of the person who would hold the highest office in the land, the president.

Under the American system of presidential elections, a purely democratic election chooses electors to represent each state, and those electors in turn choose the president in an election with its roots in federalism. The most populous states still can swing the election, but smaller states continue to have a say in the matter by virtue of their own electors.

The genius of the system is even more evident in 2012 than it was in 1787, when Congress sent the Constitution to the states for ratification. Take a look at an electoral map from 2008 (or watch as the states are colored in and the electoral counts toted up tonight), and you quickly get a feeling for the way that states with larger populations and similar interests align on the same side of the two-party divide, while states with a more rural population and a separate set of interests align on the other side of that divide.

It’s been said that democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner. Under the American electoral system of voting, the sheep have a chance. It was a masterstroke for a group of men that already had proved to be thinking far ahead of their time.

As a recent swing state, Virginia is one of the most important states in this election. As evidence, look at the number of times the presidential candidates have visited the commonwealth in recent months. If it were not for the Electoral College, though, most of Virginia, including Suffolk, would have been part of a vast expanse of territory ignored by both campaigns this year as they sought to curry the favor of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles and the other 25 or so most populous areas of the nation.

There’s a good chance that whoever wins the popular vote tonight will lose the electoral count. If that happens, expect to hear the perennial call for abolishing the Electoral College. Folks who really want their votes to count will fight that populist urge.


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