The Electoral College Is Designed To Let the States Choose the President
The Electoral College was designed by the framers of the Constitution to keep the selection of the President in the hands of the states and out of the hands of the federal government itself. Even more than two hundred years ago, the men who wrote the Constitution knew that the president would be a very powerful office, being a co-equal branch of government, and that the only way to keep the power of the president equal to that of the Congress was to keep the selection of the chief executive out of its hands.
History has proven the framers of the Constitution correct. Periodically Congress tries to figure out ways to get control of the President. The conflict between the two branches is by design, not by accident. The current tactic for Congress controlling the selection of the president (if you don't count President Clinton's impeachment on political charges) is through campaign finance "reform."
The Electoral College is the mechanism by which the selection of the President is kept in the hands of the states. The president is chosen, not by voters directly, but by electors. Electors are state officials who are elected by the voters in the November General Election. The winning electors then travel to the state capitol in December and cast their ballots for President. These ballots are then sent to Washington, D.C. where they are counted by the presiding officer of the United States Senate, the Vice-President. Then, a winner is declared. If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, then the decision is made in the House of Representatives where each state's delegation has one vote.
The presidential election has not formally been decided by the House since 1824. Congress did, however, decide the 1876 contest between Hayes and Tilden, where the loser was elected, and chose Gerald Ford by forcing Nixon from office. See (Congress's Record in Choosing Presidents.)
By recent tradition, voters in every state except Maine and Nebraska elect an at-large slate of electors. That is why it is a winner-take-all system in almost every state. In the early years of the republic, electors were sometimes chosen by congressional district.
Electors are free to vote for any candidate they choose. That is why the major party electors are usually the most faithful party adherents that the candidate can find. When electors vote for someone other than the candidate to whom they originally pledged themselves, they are called faithless electors. In 1976, one Washington elector voted for Reagan instead of Ford. It didn't make any difference because Carter won the election. In 1972, one Virginia elector voted for the Libertarian candidate, Hospers, instead of Nixon. This also didn't make any difference because Nixon won the election. In 1968, a Nixon elector from North Carolina voted for George Wallace because, he said, his congressional district had voted for Wallace. In 1960, a Nixon elector from Oklahoma voted for Senator Byrd. There are faithless electors periodically, but they have never changed the outcome of an election.
The Electoral College Attempts to Ensure Geographical Balance
The Electoral College ensures that presidential candidates run national campaigns and try to represent people in all parts of the country. Without the electoral college, candidates would be free to ignore those sparsely populated areas and concentrate on the big states where most of the voters live.
With the Electoral College, it doesn't matter whether a candidate carries a state by 10 votes or by 100,000 votes. In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy carried Illinois by a margin of 8,858 out of almost 5 million cast. He carried New Jersey by 22,091 and Missouri by 9,983. So, a switch of 21,000 voters from Kennedy to Nixon in these three states would have given Nixon the election.
Ten million votes were cast in Illinois, New Jersey and Texas, about 1/6th of the total.So a switch of only 4 voters out of every 1,000 voters in those three states would have changed the outcome of the 1960 presidential race. But the significant point is that the switch would have had to come from three different sections of the country, New Jersey on the east coast, Illinois in the mid-west, and Texas in the south. Forty thousand votes isn't many out of over 60 million, but when the geographical balance is considered, those 40,000 votes look a lot harder to change.
Without the Electoral College, the sparsely populated states of the far west like North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada would become irrelevant in presidential politics. In 1992, Clinton carried Pennsylvania by over 400,000 votes, Illinois by over 700,000 and New York by almost 1,100,000. By contrast there were only 300,000 total voters in North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Alaska and Vermont; 200,000 in Wyoming, and 400,000 in Montana. The total number of voters in these seven small states was less than Clinton's margins in Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois.
Representing land and resources is not 100% democratic, but it is fair. It is not in the interest of the 200,000 extra voters in the Bronx, New York that they should be able to outvote the 200,000 cattle ranchers and miners in Wyoming. Cattle and minerals are just as important to the people who live in the Bronx as they are to people who live in Wyoming, even if they know nothing about how these issues effect them.
Geography counts in politics. Former Secretary of State George Schultz says "Where you sit is where you stand." People should have paid more attention to Senators Ernest Greuning of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon when they cast the only no votes on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which provided the cover for American intervention in Vietnam. At the time, many people argued that if we didn't fight the communists in Vietnam, we would have to fight them in Hawaii. How the communists from a country of mostly peasant farmers would get to Hawaii was never mentioned. Anyway, if we were going to have to fight communists from the Pacific Ocean region, the people most threatened would have been those in Alaska and Oregon. Yet, their senators were voting no.
The somewhat undemocratic nature of the Electoral College is periodically cited by people as a reason for its elimination. Their complaint is that the Electoral College makes it possible for a presidential candidate with fewer votes to win over a candidate with more votes. This is true, theoretically. Has it ever happened? Yes, once. In 1888. But the only damage the electoral college ever did was to delay Grover Cleveland's second term by four years.
The Electoral College Delays Grover Cleveland's Second Term By Four Years
In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland of New York even though Cleveland received 90,596 more votes. However, neither Harrison nor Cleveland received a majority of the votes. The reason for Cleveland's loss was simple. He carried every state he had carried when he won four years before, except for two.
Cleveland lost Indiana and his own home state of New York. Cleveland lost Indiana because Benjamin Harrison came from Indiana. He lost New York by a narrow margin of 14,373, or 1.1% of the vote. Had Cleveland held on to his own home state of New York, where he had been Governor, he still would have won the election.
To put this election in perspective, it should be noted that the post-Civil war elections were very close because the nation was sharply divided. Democratic candidates still carried the sold south by wide margins. Cleveland received 65.5% of the vote in Texas, 73.8% in Mississippi, 73.4% in Louisiana, 70.3% in Georgia, and 67% in Alabama. Except for small Vermont, where Harrison got 71.2% of the vote, his next highest states were Maine and Nevada where he got 57.5% of the vote. The race was close all over the country, except in the south.
In 1888, Grover Cleveland received 48.62% of the vote but lost to Benjamin Harrison who received 47.82%. Four years before, Cleveland squeeked past James G. Blaine of Maine by 48.50% to 48.25%, a margin of 25,685 votes. So, Cleveland actually did marginally better in 1888 than in 1884, but lost.
The elections in the late 1870's and 1880's were close elections, where the winning candidate never received a majority of the vote. In 1880, four years before Cleveland was elected Republican James A. Garfield eeked past Democrat Winfield S. Hancock 48.27% to 48.25% or by 1,898. It shows that the country was closely divided over issues that took two decades to resolve.
Seeing as Cleveland came back four years later, in 1892, to win a second term with only 46.05% compared to Harrison's even worse 42.96%, it would be safe to say that the only damage that can be attributed to the Electoral College's potential for electing candidates who receive fewerr votes is that it delayed Cleveland's second term by four years. In four consecutive close elections, neither major party candidate received a majority of the votes. So, the operation of the Electoral College has never defeated majority rule.
Cleveland's defeat in 1888 is certainly not enough of a reason to change an institution that has otherwise served flawlessly for over 200 years. If the Electoral College is abandoned, what is the alternative?
It is well to remember that there have been two elections in American History where the losing candidate was elected president by Congress: the election of 1824 when Adams beat Jackson, and the Hayes - Tilden election of 1876, the election immediately preceding the four cliffhangers discussed above. In 1876, Tilden received almost 51% of the vote, but legal shenanigans and the Congress delivered the election to Rutherford B. Hayes. It's no coincidence that the first post-Civil War Democratic president won the following election. While the Electoral College has never defeated majority rule, the Congress has.(See Congress's Record in Choosing Presidents.)
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