Why did the founders of the Constitution create the Electoral College? Why did they create a body of elites (electors) who actually decide who the president of the United States will be? Why have we not passed a Constitutional Amendment to rid ourselves of such an archaic institution?
The founders understood intuitively in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia what we now know factually through research, that about 80 percent of humans are emotional creatures who do not vote according to logic. To protect the people from themselves, the founders created the Electoral College. It acts as a check on the power of the voters.
Those chosen to be electors for the Electoral College were considered to be politically savvy, with the education and the intelligence to override the emotions of the masses and to vote for the good of the nation, rather than for a demagogue who would lead the nation to destruction.
To do this, the electors would have to ignore the vote of the public and, instead, select a candidate who was best for the nation, in their view.
Each state decides who the electors will be. Today, the political parties, based on who wins the popular vote, select the electors. The number of U.S. representatives, plus two senators, determine the number of electors for each state. Washington state, for example, has nine U.S. representatives and two senators giving us 11 electoral votes out of 538.
Reality has shown us that the overwhelming majority of electors throughout our presidential election history have not had the courage to buck the popular will. The voters would not have tolerated the electors crossing them.
Amending the Constitution according to Article V and ending the Electoral College would require passage by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states to ratify. That is not likely to occur.
It continues to exist because the system gives attention to small, less populous states. If there were no Electoral College, candidates would focus on large populous cities, ignoring the rural areas. Because 270 electoral votes are needed to win a presidential election, every vote counts. This forces the candidates to campaign in all the states, large or small. Small states guard this attention jealously and would never give up their power to the popular vote if a Constitutional Amendment were proposed.
The Electoral College encourages a “winner-takes-all” outcome, meaning we will continue to have a two-party system. Third parties do not have much chance to win, but they can greatly affect the election’s result, as they are very likely to do this November. The Libertarian Party may pick up 10 percent or more of the vote nationwide, mostly from Donald Trump, increasing Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory. (See last week’s In Focus column.)
In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the popular vote by 543,895 more votes than George W. Bush, but lost the election due to Florida’s Electoral College votes favoring Bush. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, stripped 2,882,995 or 2.74 percent of the popular vote, mainly from Gore nationwide, since Nader’s stand was to the left of Gore. Nader received 97,488 popular votes in Florida in 2000. Bush took Florida with only a margin of 537 popular votes. Had Gore won even a portion of Nader’s votes, he would easily have become president in 2000.
Presidential candidates have to gain at least 270 Electoral votes to win the election. That is a little more than half of 538 total Electoral votes. In the 2000 presidential election, Bush won 271 Electoral votes to Gore’s 266, based upon a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision over who received Florida’s 25 Electoral votes.
In the 2016 presidential election, had Bernie Sanders decided to bolt the Democratic Party and create his own third party, it is likely Trump would win the general election in November for the same reason that Bush won in 2000.
As you can see, the Electoral College system can and does tip the scale and sometimes skews the results in presidential elections. The founders’ decision to create the College was based upon their distrust of the awareness and clear thinking of U.S. voters. Their decision was a wise one that is not likely to change any time soon.