Electoral College Myths
Every presidential election cycle we hear the same uninformed opinions about the Electoral College.
Some say that it was intended to ensure “Proportional representation.” Others, that it was intended to “limit the influence of the more populous states.” Still others insist that the popular vote is pointless, since “a small group of electors actually chooses the president.”
From reading James Madison’s notes on the original Constitutional Convention, it is clear that there was great disagreement about how to choose the nation’s “chief executive.” Some distrusted the masses, and wanted either the state governments or the federal legislature to make the selection.
Others DID trust the people, but believed that it would not be possible for presidential candidates to reach so many people on any kind of meaningful level.
This latter group won the day (and no, it wasn’t a “compromise.” A compromise means that each side gives up some of what it wants, but the agreement that was made was satisfactory to all parties concerned.)
What was decided on was that each state would choose its own group of electors. And, IN ORDER TO ENSURE THAT EACH STATE HAD AN INFLUENCE EQUAL TO ITS PROPORTION OF THE OVERALL POPULATION OF THE COUNTRY, that is to say “democracy,” the number of electors assigned to each was based upon its total number of congressional delegates. For instance, Mississippi has four congressional districts and two senators. Consequently, it is assigned six electors. Since the Constitution allows for a maximum of 1 congressional representative for every 30,000 people, it can be seen that as each state’s population grew, its congressional delegation was expected to grow also, thus ensuring that each state’s representation was proportional to its population in relation to the rest of the country. Although this was, in fact, “proportional representation,” this was a RESULT of the means of determining the number of electors for each state. It was NOT the primary purpose of the Electoral College.
Since each state’s electors would be acting on behalf of their state’s populace, like that populace, they were expected to vote their own consciences for the candidates they felt were the most qualified. That is to say, rather then staging popular elections, each state’s electors would vote in place of the state’s populace.
The reason so many people (including Dr. Walter Williams, a syndicated columnist and libertarian supporter) believe that the Electoral College was intended to limit the power of the more populous states is the result of the arbitrary limitation on the number of members allowed in the House of Representatives. This limit was established by law in 1911, presumably to prevent that body from becoming unmanageably large.
Since the total number of congressional representatives was to be limited, and the number of electors assigned to each state was still the same as the number of its congressional delegates, the larger, faster growing states’ congressional delegation could not increase by the same proportion as its populace, since to do so might require depriving smaller states of any representation at all. Consequently, the number of electors assigned to the faster-growing states likewise failed to keep up with their growth.
Basically, the fact that the Electoral College now DOES limit the influence of larger states is the result of a law passed 120 years or so after ratification of the Constitution, and so could not have been the Founders’ intent.
The last myth that needs exploding is the notion that “a small group of electors nullifies the popular vote.” This demonstrates ignorance not only of how things work today, but how they were supposed to work originally.
Recall that I stated earlier that each elector was EXPECTED to vote his conscience. The very fact that he’d been chosen as an elector meant that his judgment and wisdom were trusted and so he was expected to use his abilities in making his choice. Once all electors’ votes were cast, these votes would be collected and sent to the House of Representatives to be counted.
The way it works now is that each party that has candidates for president and vice-president on the ballot in a state would pick its OWN electors, and whichever pair of candidates won the popular vote would send all of its electors’ votes, for THEIR candidates of course, to be counted.
Thus, the popular vote, in each state at least, DOES select the president and firstname.lastname@example.org