The cliffhanger presidential election has people talking again about our “antiquated and undemocratic” Electoral College system. As I write, nobody knows who won the election, but there is a strong possibility that it wasn’t the winner of the popular vote. Many believe that the popular vote should elect the president, and that the Electoral College should be abolished.
Is the system antiquated? No argument there; it’s as old as our Constitution, where it was instituted. That in itself is no mark against the system. There are lots of antiquated features of the Constitution that most of us want to keep, starting with the Bill of Rights.
Is the system undemocratic? I won’t object to that term either: the system was intentionally designed to be undemocratic. After all, our nation is a constitutional, federal republic, which is not the same as a democracy. Our nation’s founders had a hearty disdain for democracy, based on their knowledge of history and human nature.
James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, noted during the debate over ratification that “…democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Founder John Adams reminded us to “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
The word “democracy” is not to be found in any of our founding documents: the Constitution, Declaration of Independence or any other. In contrast the Constitution, in Article IV, requires that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…”
In such a government the people elect those whom they know and trust to represent them. Those representatives do the homework necessary to make decisions on complex issues. If the people become dissatisfied with those decisions, they can change representatives; but they don’t vote directly on the issues.
The Electoral College was an attempt to build into the presidential election some of the republican character that permeates the design of the Constitution. The Framers intended that voters would choose wise electors to select the president and vice president. Few believed that the average person would learn enough about the candidates to make an informed choice, or would base such a choice on reason rather than passion.
Alexander Hamilton, writing in support of the Electoral College in The Federalist No. 68, argued that “It is 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 …. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”
As the quality of our presidential candidates continues to degrade along with the people’s knowledge of our nation’s history and founding principles, doesn’t the Founders’ vision seem even more compelling today? We need to recreate the Electoral College to be the republican institution that it was designed to be. We certainly don’t need to replace it with an even more democratic system.