The Founding Fathers dreamed up a way to elect a president by overriding the popular will, and some people — many of them unfamiliar with what they’re talking about — want to fix something that ain’t broke.
They think the Founders don’t deserve all that respect. Didn’t they know the Electoral College, which doesn’t even have a football team or a homecoming queen, would be the redoubt of the elites? What were those guys smoking in Philadelphia?
The short answer is yes, they knew exactly what they were doing, and why, and we can be glad they did.
The Founders were not at all confident that voters would pay sufficient attention to the job at hand, studying the men and issues to come to a correct evaluation of the candidates. This was hardly sexist or racist; women and Africans couldn’t vote, anyway. That was a fix for another generation.
The Founders were concerned with protecting and preserving the rights of the several states that make up the union, and through the states the rights of the people. The arguments, which can sound harsh to snowflake ears, were plain and to the point.
“A popular election in this case is radically vicious,” argued Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts. “The ignorance of the people it would put in power, dispersed through the union and acting in concert, is to delude them into any appointment.” The people,” he said on further reflection the next day, “are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.”
Who would argue that the masses, distracted by the entertainment culture, have become more attentive to the issues in the centuries since? The Founders had seen the dangers of, in one description, “placing the unlimited power to elect the president into the politically naive hands of the people could lead to the tyranny of the majority.” Majorities can be wanton, unthinking and cruel. The Founders, in their remarkable wisdom, saw both problem and solution.
Democracies, a wise old preacher once told me, can be trouble. The closest thing to a pure democracy may be a Baptist church, he said, where the smallest decision, from where to bank the proceeds of the collection plate to which brand of grape juice to use in the communion service, is decided when every member of the church gets to cast a vote. “That has led to many a church fight followed by a split, which is why there are so many Baptist churches. I could show you some scars. Too much democracy can be too much.”
The Founders recognized that peril in a democracy and prescribed a republic, which is not to be taken to mean the modern Republican Party any more than that a democracy is a creature of the Democratic Party. Article IV Section 4 of the Constitution sets out with precision that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of government.” That means “a representative democracy.”
The genius of the Electoral College is that it guarantees that the states’ electors elect the president, as instructed by the people. This further guarantees that small states get a voice in the selection of presidents, that the likes of Montana and Delaware and Oklahoma get a campaign visit from the candidates. Without this guarantee, a presidential candidate would spend all his time in California, Texas and Florida, with only grudging nods to the states of flyover country. The guarantee of attention to both large and small states enforces federalism, the sharing of powers between the central government and the states.
Fortunately, trashing the Electoral College won’t be easy. It can only be done with an amendment to the Constitution. Such an amendment must get approval by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, 75 votes in the House and 67 in the Senate, and then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states, or 39 of the 50 states. It’s hardly conceivable that the legislatures of 39 states would give up their power to choose a president.
Several states where the politicians don’t know any better are considering schemes to work around the Constitution. One such scheme would require a state to award its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. That seems to be of dubious constitutionality and might require another amendment to the Constitution.
Left-wing voices ever ready to display their disdain for everything about America are pushing the effort. The Nation magazine calls the Electoral College an “anti-democratic relic of unconscionable compromises made during America’s founding.” Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, imagined it would assure presidents of “pre-eminent ability and virtue.” What the Electoral College has going for it is that it works, and that likely makes it safe for the future.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.