Sundin column: Is the Electoral College an anachronism?
As I See It
In May of 1787 the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia for the purpose of drafting a constitution for the governance of the recently formed United States of America. At that time, communications were limited, and most of the citizens had little knowledge about political activities outside the portion of the state in which they resided.
In framing the Constitution, the delegates recognized this fact by limiting popular vote by the people to candidates for the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Senators from each state were to be chosen by their state legislatures — until 1912 when the 17th Amendment changed election of senators to popular vote.
The framers of the Constitution also considered direct public election of the President to be both impractical and undesirable. Article II of the Constitution directs each state to appoint a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives to which the state is entitled. This “Electoral College” (EC) would presumably be composed of well-informed individuals better qualified to elect the president.
The framers also did not anticipate the formation of political parties, which began to make their presence known in 1800. In 1804, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution changed the procedure, instructing the electors to meet in their respective states to vote for President and Vice President and submit the results to the President of the Senate.
How the electors were to be chosen was not specified, but for about 200 years they have been nominated at a state convention or by vote of the party’s central committee in each state. In both cases, the electors of the party receiving the most votes in the election vote for their candidate. Although this is not required by federal law, they may be bound by state law or party pledges, except for Maine and Nebraska, which allow proportional representation.
Rifts over two issues divided the Constitutional Convention: small states vs. large states over the election of the President, and southern states vs. northern states over slavery.
The small vs. large issue was resolved by adding each state’s two senators in the count for the EC, giving the small states a larger voice.
The southern states increased their voice in both the House of Representatives and the EC by having slaves (with no voting rights) counted in the census as two-thirds of a person, which increased their number in both by 18 to 35 percent.
Since the Civil War, the southern states have been able to count their black citizens as whole persons for the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and the EC, but have enacted laws and adopted repressive actions to suppress their ability to vote.
The purpose for which the EC was established is long gone, and instead of enhancing the election process, it has become an obstacle. The EC’s winner-take-all policy has the effect of negating the votes of all those in each state who voted for the losing party’s candidate.
The only states in which all voters have a voice in the outcome of the election are those in which voters are so equally divided that the outcome cannot be predicted — the so-called “swing states.”
In states in which a preponderance of the voters favor either the Democratic or Republican candidate, voters favoring the minority party’s candidate might as well stay home — and many of them do.
In the last 10 presidential elections, the turnout has been only 58-64 percent of the eligible voters. More than 26 million voters in the 2016 presidential election (over 20 percent of the 129 million votes cast) had absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.
The result was that narrow margins in a handful of swing states elected a president over an opponent who won the popular election by nearly 3 million votes.
Fortunately, although the Constitution establishes the EC, it is silent on how it should vote, which leaves that up to each state. Consequently, popular-vote results can be adopted if approved by enough states to total 270 electoral votes.
The popular vote proposal now has the support of 16 states with a total of 196 electoral votes, requiring only 74 more votes for adoption of popular voting for president.
Popular-vote bills have now been introduced in all 50 states and are making progress in another 26 of them, with a combined total of well over 200 electoral votes, making a popular-vote election in 2020 a real possibility.
Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. “As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Contact him at email@example.com.
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