The Electoral College, a Hallmark of Representative Government

Created: 10 May, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

Americans are very concerned about the Electoral College. The People seem so shocked by the process, one might think the parties dreamed the scheme up recently to pull a fast one on the public. In reality, the Electoral College has been with us from the beginning of our democracy and reflects the tenuous balance between the ideals of democracy and a republic.

Shock and disgust come over people when the bare fact is laid out before them: a voter does not vote for a candidate, but for a delegate (in the primaries), and an elector (in the general election). In the

words of late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "the Constitution does not provide for the popular election of anyone."

The Constitution also does not mention parties, though parties have been a natural way for people to organize and elect representatives. Under the First Amendment, parties have the right to make rules for their organizations that cannot be infringed upon by the government. Elections are, by design, left to the People to organize. Courts and government agencies have limited authority to direct how the People organize.

The questions that should follow shock and disgust over the electoral system are why do the People organize this way, and how should the People organize differently, if the current system is unacceptable. The trouble is, these questions lead to a very complicated problem that has plagued civilizations: How does society prevent tyranny -- tyranny of the masses, or majority; and tyranny of factions, or minority?

The Founders of the U.S. came up with a solution, however tenuous: representative government, decentralized power, and weighted votes.


Representative Government

Representative government is supposed to ensure that qualified individuals make the important decisions, not uninformed masses who may be encouraged by any sentiment. Delegates and electors serve this purpose. Delegates serve as representatives in private political parties, and electors are enshrined in the Constitution as part of our national representative government.

In the 1980s, after selecting several untenable candidates, the Democratic Party adjusted its rules to allow for superdelgates -- elite figures whose purpose is to ensure that a winning candidate is selected for presidential elections. As Ann Lewis, an adviser to the Democratic Party since the 1970s, stated on a panel in 1984,

"The purpose of a party is to win elections and to govern."

Superdelegates do not influence the general election, and don't exist in Republican Party rules, but serve a purpose for the Democrat's private political club.

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Decentralized Powers and Weighted Votes

Decentralizing power is an important theme in U.S. politics, most notably in the tenant of separation of powers between branches of government. According to Professor Emeritus Donald Robinson, of Smith College, one virtue of the Electoral College is its function of decentralizing the power of the majority.

In an interview for IVN, Robinson explained:

"Instead of thinking of the the U.S. as a great big whole, have to think about the country as a number of elements."

This function of decentralizing what can be called the fourth branch of government -- the People -- provides protection against the tyranny of the masses. Each state, even small states with small populations, must be taken into account, and separately considered by those wishing to represent the People.


The Value and Threat of the Electoral College

Arguments against the Electoral College bring the People back to some very complicated problems.

The main argument against the Electoral College is the danger of electors voting against the will of the People. In a very real and important sense, this speaks to the U.S.'s value of representative government.

The Electoral College functions as a safety valve in two ways. One is to protect against the tyranny of the masses, as a function of representative government. Second, and more practical, is to allow for representation in case of an abnormality, such as death of a candidate late in the election process.

There is also a real danger: tyranny of factions. Electors can be selected by parties with no rules binding qualifications of electors, nor an elector’s votes to the People. In this sense, a small number of private party operatives have the power to select who they wish to the executive branch.

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The People's Problem

The Electoral College is part of the Constitution, and can only be abolished by a two-thirds vote in Congress. Parties, however, are not in the Constitution.

There is no easy solution for how the People should organize to elect representatives. Parties and the Electoral College are the solutions that generations past have used.

No matter the path, society will have to face the threat of tyranny, and if all goes well, guard against it.

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