De-Accrediting the Electoral College: The Real Costs of a Constitutional Relic

Hillary Clinton’s superdelegate strategy has highlighted the flaws in our electoral college system — and the need to finally embrace democracy in its truest form in the selection of the President of the United States. The column below explores the controversy.

HEADLINE: Unequal votes;
The Electoral College is a relic of elitist Framers who didn’t fully trust ‘the people.’ Yet the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system relies on the same disturbing principle.

It appears that the Electoral College has finally found a passionate advocate. Indeed, the past few weeks, Hillary Clinton has been talking so much about the Electoral College, one would think she was an alumna.

In her campaign for superdelegates, Clinton has been insisting that it is irrelevant whether Barack Obama receives the majority of votes or even the majority of states. It is all about the Electoral College; therefore, voters in red states who chose Obama do not really count because, as Democrats, they will not have any say in the general election.

Clinton is, of course, correct.

There are those, however, who would like to change that. This month, Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed the elimination of the Electoral College and the long-overdue adoption of direct election of the president. While attempted many times before, reformers hope that the current outcry over superdelegates will highlight the equally undemocratic role of the Electoral College.

Kindred systems

The Electoral College and the superdelegate system work on the same premise: Citizens sometimes cannot be entirely trusted to choose the next president. Clinton last week even dismissed the notion of “pledged” (or non-super) delegates as a “misnomer,” suggesting that they are free to disregard the will of voters in choosing a nominee.

The senator of New York has stressed that such delegates would not be swayed by the “passion” and oratory of Obama. Since many of Obama’s states are locks for the Republicans in the Electoral College come November, her campaign has called on the party leadership to recognize that she is more electable in a system that does not recognize the national majorities.

Clinton would have found great allies in the Framers. Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry warned that “the people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men.” Even George Mason, the great advocate of the Bill of Rights, dismissed direct election due to the inability of ordinary citizens to actually see and hear candidates, given the country’s size: “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper magistrate to the people as it would to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.”

While the Framers were great believers in the natural rights of the common man, they actually had little faith in the judgment of the common man. Indeed, most of the Framers were unflinching, unrepentant elitists. They wanted a representative democracy to create a buffer of educated men between citizens and their government. It was not until 1913 that the country finally amended the Constitution to allow for direct election of senators (who were originally elected by state legislatures).

Throughout U.S. history, the Electoral College has worked as designed: to place elections in the hands of an elite. Past controversies involved the same personal wheeling and dealing that we’re seeing today with superdelegates:

*In 1800, there was a tie in electoral votes between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson’s successful power play left such a bitter aftermath that it might have contributed to Burr’s alleged betrayal of his country and his shooting of Alexander Hamilton.

*In 1824, Andrew Jackson received the most votes of four candidates. However, John Quincy Adams effectively bought off Henry Clay who, in return for throwing his votes to Adams, became his secretary of State.

*In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the majority of votes by a margin of 250,000 over Rutherford B. Hayes. Yet Hayes bought the nomination with a promise to withdraw Northern troops from the South and end Reconstruction.

Then, of course, there was the 2000 election, when Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush but was denied the White House because of the Electoral College system.

Defenders of status quo

Advocates often insist that the college forces candidates to pay attention to small states in their campaigns. Yet, the opposite is true.

A Democratic nominee currently has little reason to campaign in Utah, or a Republican nominee to visit Massachusetts. But if the country had direct elections, a candidate would have every reason to go to such states to secure a couple hundred thousand votes. Given the often close margins of modern elections, no candidate is going to leave thousands of votes in Salt Lake City untapped if they actually counted toward the election.

The fact is that the Electoral College is preserved for, and by, the people who created it: the nation’s ruling elite. The college gives both parties locks on states by discouraging opposing candidates from campaigning in their states and undermining their party’s control. Conversely, a direct election would allow candidates to make pitches directly to citizens and thereby reduce the influence of the two-party monopoly. Suddenly, people in Boise and Boston would see both candidates campaign for their votes instead of sitting out the general election as pre-ordained electoral proxies for their parties. Moreover, voters are no longer “blind” and now can see and hear candidates for themselves.

Despite our immense respect for the Framers, they were not perfect. Even so, they did possess the humility to acknowledge that time could prove them wrong and created a process by which we could amend the Constitution. We have proved them wrong about the ability of ordinary citizens to make decisions directly about their government; we have proved better than their expectations.

One politician understood that in 2000, stating, “We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago. … We should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

It was Hillary Clinton.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors.

LOAD-DATE: April 8, 2008

30 thoughts on “De-Accrediting the Electoral College: The Real Costs of a Constitutional Relic”

  1. MichaelSpindell:

    Observing willful ignorance and suffering needless provocation will do that to you, you know.

  2. Jill,
    Implying that Niblet is a terrorist was done ironically. His side of the political spectrum routinely states that liberals, non-conforming conservatives and/or libertarians are traitors and abetting terrorists.
    As far as your Stasi reference it’s well taken, but if that is the tenor of things today then we’re all going to hang together for the comments we’ve made. Niblet, on the other hand may do very well when the heel comes down. However, I admit I was being a bit too contentious and I will try to tone it down.

  3. Since discussion of the Electoral College (EC) is at the fore, please note that there has been a rough balance of power between the small rural states and the big urban states in it for many, many years. The two extra Senatorial votes for each state can triple the vote of a small state. But almost all states award their votes on a winner-take-all basis, giving an enormous boost to the largest states. A candidate with 51 percent in NY or CA takes all of the EC votes.

    So, we have seen that the woman on the street in Wyoming, the least populous state, has little incentive to change the EC since its vote would be reduced to one-third its former strength. Similarly, the woman on the street in NY has even less incentive to change it, since the winner gets all of its EC votes, giving its vote powerful national impact.

    This resistance to change is not the will of some shadowy ruling elite, but just a practical political horse trade. Many dislike the undemocratic nature of the EC, but it survives primarily because it has proven to be nearly impossible to form a broad consensus for an alternative. Secondarily, each side had enough of a stake in its present form to resists any change that would hurt its position.

  4. Michael,

    I think niblet is uncivil, ignorant and makes countless stupid statements but that doesn’t make him like a terrorist. I think we should be very careful about using that word to describe others, especially in the stazi like environment we live in.


  5. Vince:

    How about that lot in Florida that is water-front, water-back and water-topped?

  6. JT: “A Democratic nominee currently has little reason to campaign in Utah, or a Republican nominee to visit Massachusetts. But if the country had direct elections, a candidate would have every reason to go to such states to secure a couple hundred thousand votes. Given the often close margins of modern elections, no candidate is going to leave thousands of votes in Salt Lake City untapped if they actually counted toward the election.”

    Huh? The Democrats polled 241,000 in Utah in 2004. If they poured in money, staff and appearances and boosted their vote by 10 percent, they got—24,000 votes. Even an unbeleivable 20 per cent gain nets only 48,000 votes.

    If they poured that effort into NY, a 10 percent gain nets—430,000 votes! If the GO P put that effort into NY, a 10 percent gains gets them 296,000 votes!

    There are certainly tens of thousands of votes out there in the small states. But there are hundreds of thousands in the big states.

    After selling the small states on direct elections, I plan to sell them Betamax, eight-track tapes, and whole-life insurance.

  7. “About the only thing the founding fathers got right was the electorial college system.”

    I find it interesting that you are so disparaging and dare I say unpatriotic when it comes to the US. If you don’t believe in the Constitution then you don’t believe in our country. If you don’t believe in our country then what do you believe in? You disparage liberals, so I guess you consider yourself to be a conservative. I don’t think there are many conservatives like you who don’t believe in the basic structure of our country. If there are, then we are in dire trouble because we are threatened by people, like yourself, who consider themselves to be above, or outside the system. I wouldn’t like to believe it about you, but you could well be a terrorist with that attitude, since they also don’t believe in our system of government.

  8. J. Turley: “Then, of course, there was the 2000 election, when Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush but was denied the White House because of the Electoral College system.”

    Excuse me?

    I’m sorry, but I don’t recall Article III or Amendment XII conferring any subject matter jurisdictional power upon the Supreme Court to issue a certain Stay on 12/9/2000.

    In fact, if I recall correctly, Article IV’s guarantee of a ‘Republican Form Of Government,’ said form of government being expounded upon in Federalists 47 & 51 etc., prohibited the Court’s action and gave that accumulation of so much power in so few hands a specific name…

  9. About the only thing the founding fathers got right was the electorial college system. Everything else they managed to mangle by leaving off a choice word or two that would have ended a lot of this garbage that ends up in front of the Supreme Court.

  10. What is wrong with majority rule? Isn’t that how a democracy is supposed to work? (I know the difference between democracies, representative democracies, republics, etc. so please don;t go there everybody). I understand conservatives being fearful that California and New York could very well elect a few presidents but that is a short sighted view. Both states are really only blue in NYC and LA, look at an electoral map of either state and you’ll see the majority as red. Now look at the maps of the big population explosions going on in the south and west like Florida and Texas and one can anticipate voting power shifting much sooner than later.

    While I agree with my fellow posters above that due to the disproportionate weight of small state vs. large state votes, the E.C. will be with us for a long, long time.

  11. The difficulty in removing the Electoral College is immense as prior comments have discussed. We see though by the results of the 2000 election and the national disaster that has ensued, reform is urgently needed. Burr was not as crazy as popular history has portrayed him, Jackson was better than JQ Adams & Clay was an elitist, Hayes was a disaster and his actions led to the rise of Jim Crow, and Bush is quite frankly a war criminal.

    The EC also ensures the continuance of the vaunted two party system, which I think suppresses new viewpoints and the ability of this country change substantively. Partisanship has become similar to rooting for ones’ favorite sports team and has denied the exchange of ideas fostered by vigorous debate. I support the effort towards direct popular vote, but I’m perplexed as to how we get there.

  12. In this election, where a surprising number of college students/young voters came out to the polls (at least in the primaries), the elite are embracing the electoral college & superdelegate ideas more than ever. The truth is, the greater voter turn-out, the less predictable the race is. This results in more potential voters who the elite does not know or trust. What better way to control such unpredictability by simply placing the decision in the hands of a small group of people who the elite DOES know and trust. What right do we have to go around spreading the idea of democracy when we still embrace a ‘relic’ that is the antithesis of the idea itself?

  13. Thus would begin the political gaming of the popular vote. Currently we have a war between the left wing and the right wing of the money party which represents money not people. At this point, the act of voting may equal the expectation of beating a slot machine at your favorite casino.

  14. Vince,

    You always lay out your arguments very well. Both you and rcampbell make good points.


  15. I agree that small (red) states support the present system and they they, not the “ruling elite,” would block any change. I expect that McCain could well roll up massive electoral totals in the southern and western states this fall, and may possibly be elected by the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. I expect massive Republican nonsupport for any newly proposed electoral college reforms. Let’s see what happens.

  16. Being a staunch liberal, I probably should prefer doing away with the Electoral College as doing so might well, as poster betta points out, contribute to more Democrats being elected as President because of the ensuing influence of states with large and particularly urban populations. However, this seems exactly what the founders were trying to avoid with the system they put in place.

    I have a lot of issues with the 2000 election, but if we assume the high ground and set aside suggestions of impropriety, we see the founders’ intent played out. In that election we saw the electoral votes of states like Wyoming and the Dakaotas having considerable weight in the outcome. Granted, these were not among the original states, but I believe the founders, especially those from the smaller or more rural states of the time like Vermont, Delaware or South Carolina, sought to protect the interests of those states and those voters’ ballots from being negated by the larger population areas of Philadelphia and New York by agreeing to level the playing field somewhat. One can almost hear the arguments at the Constitutional Convention about “fairness” and “undue influence of large states”. It would appear they reached a compromise that provided sufficient fairness to those concerns that it endures.

  17. The Electoral College gives each state one vote for each Representative, and then adds two more votes for its Senators. So the 13 smallest states get three times as many electoral votes as thier populations would accord them.

    Now, it takes 3-4ths of the states to ratify a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the College. So the 13 smallest states, out of pure self interest, will never vote to eliminate their triple vote in the College. They effectively have a veto.

    So why do you say that the Electoral College is preserved for and by the nation’s ruling elite? It would be preserved by the people of the 13 smallest states if an amendment were ever to pass Congress. How are you going to persuade them to give up their advantage? How would they poossibly benefit, since their popular votes would be counted one-for-one, not three-for-one?

    It is also doubtful if their state legislatures would ever even bother to vote on the proposed amendment within the time limit for ratification. (Maybe you should require ratification by state conventions if you are drafting an amendment).

    Further, any amendment would have to get at least 67 votes in the Senate, giving 34 Senators, representing the 17 smallest states, an effective veto in Congress. The amendment may never make it to the states.

    By the way, DC, just like the smallest states, gets 3 electoral votes, far out of proportion to its population. But its voters have absolutely no say whatsoever in any step of the approval of proposed dconstitutional amendments, in either Congress or in the ratification process, in yet another denial of democracy.

    Finally, while Clinton may have opposed the College in 2000, no one ever changed that system, so right now she is simply playing the cards she has been dealt under the rules chosen by the dealer. That’s politics. Big deal!

  18. I don’t want the California and New York City determining the President each four years. Most of us like the electoral college system.

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