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The Electoral College: Something that Unites Us or Divides Us?

by Kammi Foote, published

Editor's Note: This article was co-authored by Kammi Foote and Donald Wilson Bush, president of the Woodrow Wilson Legacy Foundation.

In 2016, for the fifth time in the history of the United States, it appears that the President of the United State won the Electoral College vote, but lost the popular vote. As a result, many are calling for a reform of the Electoral College in favor of a national popular election; and this debate has added a new level of division and emotional discord to the polarization already infecting our civic discourse on Main Street.

Possibly, a review of the Electoral College, and where it came from, can assist us in better understanding the efficacy of this unique system that our Founders devised more than 200 years ago. With some luck, perhaps this quick review can also help us all to walk back a few steps from the edge of the polarized chasm currently dividing the public square.

To begin our discussion of the Electoral College, it is important to note that under the United States Constitution, the people have never had a federal constitutional right to vote for president and vice president of the United States. Instead, Article II, Section I of the United State Constitution provides that each state legislature selects its own method for appointing electors, who will then vote for the president and vice president of the United States of America.

In addition, the 12th Amendment further specifies the selection of electors and the casting of ballots by electors. Finally, the 23rd Amendment provides the District of Columbia with Electoral College representation, currently set at three electors.

Over the years, the method of choosing presidential electors has varied. Today, almost every state has a “winner takes all” system of the direct popular vote cast in a statewide election.

But in the early days of our republic, more than half the states chose electors from their legislatures, thus eliminating any direct election. Other states selected their electors by district, much like Maine and Nebraska do today.

In a district system, some electoral votes are awarded to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district, and some electoral votes are awarded to the candidates receiving the most votes statewide.

Arguments against the Electoral College consist of claims that presidential elections are determined by only a few key states, and if you live in California or Texas, your vote doesn’t matter because the outcome is already predetermined based on partisan demographics.

It is tempting to agree with this perspective, but only if you look at recent voting patterns. No state can be neglected long-term without political consequences. For example, California electors have voted for the Republican presidential candidate 24 times and Texas electors have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate 27 times — which is opposite of what you would expect if you only scrutinized the past 20 years of available statistical data.

I can understand how this system would seem unfair for citizens who voted for a candidate that won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College. However, before we look for ways to reform the entire system, we should first examine why the Founders of the United States created an Electoral College system and ask ourselves if it still serves America.

The authors of the Constitution wanted to create a self-governing society, but they also knew the dangers of pure democracies. Throughout history, we have multiple examples of majority rule suppressing the rights of the minority in areas such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation (to name just a few).

In order for our system of governance to function properly, we need to respect minority rights. Because of this, the number of presidential electoral votes assigned to each state, are based on a combination of geography and population. This compromise ensures that political minority states are safeguarded against the tyranny of very populated states.

Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, what this election cycle has shown America is how easy it is in the 21st Century to sow division amongst our broad and diverse electorate. But this doesn’t have to be our future. Since our founding, we have faced immense turmoil including world wars, terrorist attacks, the Great Depression, and 9/11. Through it all we looked to our shared values to bind us together as one Nation.

As Americans, we all want to provide a decent life for our families, pursue our dreams, have safe neighborhoods, practice our faiths and feel secure in our futures. However, we don’t all agree on how to achieve this. Luckily our government was based on a division of power between national and smaller local governments, which enables us to survive as a country, while still permitting a way for local communities to meet their diverse needs and preferences.

As the discussions of reforming the Electoral College continue, we must ask ourselves: Should there be a national popular presidential election, even if it jeopardized the representation of the minority states? How do majority rule and the protection of minority rights function in practice? Are we self-censuring in our own echo-chambers to the point where we are losing our ability to have thoughtful debate and compromise as a nation?

I would like to believe that we can walk back from the edge of the polarization precipice and refocus our energy into what we do best — volunteer more, give more to charitable organizations, practice our faiths publicly with self-restraint, help our neighbors, and be active and engaged citizens.

To do this, we do not need to drastically alter the constitution that has served us well for more than 24 decades. Instead, I suggest that we turn our attention to our local communities where we can really make a difference in our everyday lives.

Talk to someone who you don’t agree with and actively listen, offer to buy a cup of coffee for your neighbor who has been going through a rough time, show up at our city council meeting, join a civic organization, volunteer at church and most importantly — vote!

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