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Snookered by a Troll/Spammer or Why the Electoral College is Important

I took the bait and spent several hours last night working up a response to a troll who posted 6 – 7 comments in short order on the post, Another Pillar of the Republic Under Attack.   I am quite chagrined.  I even sent out a message to tempt subscribers here to “join” the debate.  I’m sorry for that.   I should have recognized this as spammer material immediately.   I’ve since deleted these comments as they are merely cut’n’pasted all over the internet by proponents of National Popular Vote, an organization dedicated to making an end run around the Constitution and abolishing the electoral college system as it currently stands.  This lack of originality in re-posting the same thing over and over, is perhaps symptomatic of the tactics behind NPV campaign itself.

But, something good did come out of my being hoodwinked.  In preparing my response to the spammer, I carefully looked at all of “his” arguments, read or reread several of the Federalist essays on the topic, reviewed the relevant sections in the Constitution (article 2 section 1, 12th Amendment), and discovered a plethora of information available from the American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC.

After composing my answer,  I went to bed to sleep on it before posting it.  That’s when it hit me.  I’d been had!  So, first thing this morning I got up and did a little search.  Sure enough, this same set of comments has been posted practically everywhere there is an argument opposed to NPV.   Duh!

Here is how I was going to “feed the troll”:

You seem to imply that because “in virtually every other election in the country” elections are determined by popular vote, the same should be true of the presidential election.

I submit that this was not the intention of the Founders.  The mode of electing the president is clearly specified in Article 2 Section 1 of the Constitution and later slightly modified by the 12th Amendment.  Direct election of the president by popular vote was expressly avoided by the Founders.

Hamilton, a participant in the Constitutional Convention, explained the arguments that prevailed in Federalist 68.  The form of government given to us by the Founders is a republic not a democracy.  Hamilton leaves little doubt as to the intention behind the Electoral College when he says that choosing electors “to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.”  The election of the President was never intended to be a popularity contest.

The office of the President is the concentrated force of the executive branch.  The Founders made special provisions to ensure that the election of the president was conducted differently.  Until the 17th Amendment, United States Senators were also elected differently.  Like the President, they were selected via intermediates not through direct election.  The Founders clearly intended for the president to be chosen in the way they specified.

The argument that a National Popular Vote “gives voice to the minority party in those states where elections are seen as foregone conclusions” is inconsistent and illogical.  According to the National Popular vote website (which are the words you posted):

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

If you consider this on its face, states that pass this bill will commit their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the state popular vote. This will guarantee that the winner of the national popular vote gets a majority in the Electoral College. Only those states that together make up 270 electoral votes will decide the issue, leaving smaller states with no voice whatsoever.

How does this “give voice” to small states?

In another comment you point out that the winner takes all rule is not stipulated in the Constitution.  You’re correct, it is not.  However, the Electoral College is specified and the states may choose their electors as they determine.  Most states decided to go with the “winner takes all” method, but not all.  The states are free to decide how to select their electors.

Under the current system, each state’s electoral votes are given to the candidate based on how the majority of that state’s citizens voted.  Under the NPV plan, a state’s electoral votes could easily be awarded to a candidate that the majority of that state’s population did not vote for.  In 2004, Californians went for John Kerry by a popular margin of over a million votes.  Had the NPV plan been in effect, California’s electoral votes would have been awarded to President Bush.

Finally, this is a sneaky and probably unconstitutional movement.  Our Founding Fathers knew that, in spite of their best efforts, they were not going to be able to foresee every circumstance.  Because of this, they put in mechanisms for amending the Constitution.  They wanted to ensure that this wasn’t done lightly or subject to the winds of passing popular sentiment.  It takes a lot to amend the Constitution.   NPV’s provision makes an end run around this process.

If it is so essential to change Constitution to provide for the popular election of the President, then it should be done through legitimate means.  Even those advocating for this modification admit:

This kind of end run is necessary because the only way to get rid of the Electoral College entirely is via a constitutional amendment, which would be nearly impossible to pass. Enough small states benefit from the current system to block an amendment.  La Times Editorial August 18, 2008.

Anything that requires making “end runs” around the Constitution should be given intense scrutiny.  The Founders got it right when they made it difficult to do.  It’s not impossible.  The Constitution has been amended via legitimate means 27 times.

Finally, by appealing to popular sentiment and taking advantage of the public’s confusion about the electoral system to make this “end run,”  there are other consequences as well.  Specifically, under the current system, each state is responsible for its votes. When recounts are required, each state bears responsibility for verification. Under the NPV, because it is not Constitutional, there is no provision for a national recount.  Hence your opening statement asserting that the result would not be nationalization of the central government, is shown to be false.  The result would be a nationalization of the central government.  The multi-state compact, cobbled together by the NPV, can’t specify mechanisms for handling recounts, since that would require adding language to the Constitution.  Doing a national recount, therefore, would be difficult and costly, if not impossible.  It’s easy to see that the states would no longer be in control of their elections.

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor points out more reasons for, and benefits of the current system.

The Constitution grants power to state legislatures to decide how to select their state’s electors. This allows each state to represent its own political will in the Electoral College system.

Since early in the 19th century, most states have held popular elections.  Today, 48 states and the District of Columbia use a “winner-take-all”

Decentralizes elections and nationalizes politics: The process may be complicated, but the benefits are straightforward. The Electoral College decentralizes elections and nationalizes politics.

Because of the Electoral College, the United States has no national election bureaucracy – no presidential appointee in charge of presidential elections.

Instead, every state plus Washington, D.C., establishes and executes its own set of policies. State and local officials act based on a combination of their political culture and their appetite for policy innovation. These are the “laboratories of democracy” in action.

Containing elections within state lines also means containing election problems. The Electoral College turns the states into the equivalent of the watertight compartments on an ocean liner. Fraud or process failures can be isolated in the state where they occur and need not become national crises.

Ironically, by decentralizing presidential elections, the Electoral College nationalizes and moderates our politics. Filtering the elections through the states imposes a kind of geographic distribution requirement to win the presidency.

This also leads to the most common attack on the current system: It can produce a winner who did not receive the most popular votes. This happens when the candidate with the most popular votes has too many of those votes in too few states. This reality shapes the way presidential campaigns are conducted and national political parties are organized.

Because the Electoral College has a geographic distribution requirement, rather than simply taking the plurality winner of the national popular vote, it compels candidates and parties to build and maintain national coalitions.

Lessons from Grover Cleveland: Grover Cleveland learned this lesson the hard way. Running for reelection in 1888, he received the most popular votes, but lost the Electoral College and thus the presidency to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won 82 percent in South Carolina, and more than 70 percent in Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Harrison was nowhere so intensely popular, but he won in the most states, including large population states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

After the 1888 election, Cleveland and the Democratic Party redoubled their efforts to reach into the North and out to the new western states. They succeeded. Cleveland won the popular vote and the Electoral College in 1892, becoming the only person elected to two non-consecutive terms as President.

Without the Electoral College, the Democratic Party of 1888 would have had a successful campaign strategy: intense regional popularity.  If National Popular Vote had been the law of the land, the Democrats could have remained the party of the Deep South. The Electoral College forced the Democrats to look north and to rebuild their national coalition, even in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The threat of regional politics is one of the original reasons for the Electoral College.  The Framers of the Constitution feared “favorite son” candidates: politicians who might rise to power based on strong support from one large state or region.  The geographic distribution required by the Electoral College provides a healthy incentive to keep American politics national.

Dangers of majoritarianism: Reminders of the 2000 election – when George W. Bush lost the national popular vote but won the electoral vote – and pleas for “every vote equal” and “one person, one vote” have won some converts to the cause of the National Popular Vote.

Yet, the argument against the Electoral College is, at its core, the argument for simple majoritarianism. Many observers have noted that the rationale of the National Popular Vote movement would mean the end of the US Senate, where states are represented equally regardless of the size of their population.

Majoritarianism – the idea that nothing should stand in the way of the power of a majority – flies in the face of the Bill of Rights.   After all, every check and balance and especially every protection of rights operates to restrain the power of a momentary majority.

Opponents of the Electoral College would do well to remember that freedom and prosperity rely on social and political stability. This is the thesis of the United States Constitution, which establishes durable political institutions together with processes that incentivize coalition building and moderation. The Electoral College serves these ends, and by doing so, strengthens our political system and supports our freedom.

Making certain that every state “counts” is fundamental to federalism and thus to the Constitution. By filtering the popular will through the Electoral College the Founders erected a bulwark against the excesses of democracies and a support for the constitutional republic they designed.


1 Jeff { 08.13.10 at 8:50 pm }

Thanks for getting on this so quickly. I got your email, read the comments, and I too thought they were very thorough and presented some good arguments.
I realize now that I’m fairly ignorant of this subject, but it struck me that it just couldn’t be that simple to completely refute a fundamental part of our constitution. I was planning to research the topic when I had more time, so I appreciate the head start. I’ve been saying for a long time that our country will be doomed if we don’t do a better job of educating people on the foundations of our system. It’s clear those ‘people’ need to start with me, so I can start to pass on the knowledge as articulately as you do.


2 Thomas Washington { 08.14.10 at 3:34 pm }

Based on this excerpt from your post, I’m not sure you completely understand how the national popular vote legislation works:

“Only those states that together make up 270 electoral votes will decide the issue, leaving smaller states with no voice whatsoever.”

The legislation stipulates that the electoral votes of the states in the agreement are awarded to the candidate receiving the most popular votes IN ALL 50 STATES.

That is the only way the law would work. For example, a state like Florida, which is a battleground state and greatly benefits from the current system, might not join the national popular vote compact. Once states with a total of 270 votes have joined the agreement and it goes into effect, the popular votes from Florida, and all 50 states (and DC) are totaled to determine the national popular vote count. Even though Florida is not in the agreement, Florida’s popular votes are still part of the national popular vote total. Otherwise, as you point out, states not in the agreement would be rendered irrelevant. Florida’s electoral votes would become superfluous, but the individual votes cast by each citizen of Florida would be counted towards the national popular vote total.

Because the law goes into effect once the 270 electoral vote threshold is met and it awards all of those electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states, the makeup of the states in the agreement is irrelevant. The states could all be east coast states, big states, small states, red states, etc. It doesn’t matter. Once the 270 trigger is met, the POPULAR VOTES FROM ALL 50 STATES are included.

As to your other concerns, small states in particular are among the most disenfranchised states during presidential campaigns. Presidential candidates currently do not campaign in the small states. This is not because of their size, but rather because the vast majority of our smallest states (20 of the 25 smallest) are 1-party states. During the 2004 & 2008 general election, no presidential candidate set foot or spend a dime advertising in Idaho (or Vermont, Rhode Island, the Dakota’s etc). This is because the outcome in all those states (as it is in California, Texas, New York as well) is a foregone conclusion. The national popular vote proposal has done very well in small states accounting for more than 25% of the 30 legislative chambers that have approved the legislation across the country.

The notion that the Electoral College forces candidates to campaign everywhere is a wonderful sentiment that is complete fallacy. In both 2004 & 2008, the candidates allocated 98% of their resources – candidate visits, advertising, direct mailing, field operations, polling, etc. – in just 15 states. In other words, two-thirds of our country is not courted or campaigned to when electing our leader. The entire campaign is focused on the handful of “swing” states.

The Electoral College system established by the Founding Fathers has not operated the way they intended for more than 200 years. The members of the Electoral College, as envisioned by the drafters, do not sit in a room and discuss and then decide who the best person (white, male, property owner – the only eligible individuals at the time) is to be president. The Electoral College does not render any independent judgment or thought whatsoever. It is a rubber stamp.

A national popular vote gives every voter an equal say and will force candidates to campaign everywhere. The voters of this country should be allowed to decide their leader.


3 Martin { 08.15.10 at 6:06 am }

Thomas, thanks for taking the time to comment.

We are definitely talking at cross purposes here. When I stated:

“Only those states that together make up 270 electoral votes will decide the issue, leaving smaller states with no voice whatsoever.”

I was referring to the fact that you corroborated.

“The legislation stipulates that the electoral votes of the states in the agreement are awarded to the candidate receiving the most popular votes IN ALL 50 STATES.”

Once enough of the states join this compact, then regardless of what the other states decide, they are de facto part of the compact, whether they want to be or not. So if a state wants to go on record as having supported candidate X, because candidate X won the majority in its election, but candidate Y wins the overall national popular vote, then that state’s electoral votes go to Y, the candidate that didn’t win in its state election.

Why is this important? We are not a democracy, we are a republic. For the same reason that each state has two senators regardless of its size, we have an electoral college that guarantees a minimal number of votes to be cast how that state decides, not based on what other states are doing. This is another one of the Founders’ checks and balances against the tyranny of the majority.

This National Popular Vote movement benefits from confusion about the electoral college. The argument about foregone conclusions is illogical. Some states are “red states” and some are “blue states” so overwhelmingly that outcomes are known even in advance of the election. Consequently candidates don’t feel the need to campaign in those states. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want those electoral votes.

Similarly, candidates will make strategic decisions based on where the votes are, regardless of a National Popular Vote. I would argue that candidates would be even less likely to spend time campaigning in small states. By focusing on large population centers they can be assured of getting the small states votes regardless of how the citizens of those states actually voted!

Finally, I disagree with your conclusion. A national popular vote neither gives every voter equal say (for the reasons enumerated), nor will it force candidates to campaign everywhere. They will campaign where the votes are. The Founders had no intention to institute a direct democracy. The USA is a republic.


4 Joel { 08.15.10 at 1:13 pm }

An outstanding explanation…well done!!



5 unknown { 08.16.10 at 5:17 pm }

I’m apt to restoring the electorial college system as it was intended. One of the most compelling arguments was that it prevented people in power from moving government the way they want to through mass manipulation. The electors got their power from the people and the people in government got their power from the constitution. By having a in-between you provide a break between democracy and the constitution which is healthy for the overall system.


6 Quinn Woodworth { 11.01.12 at 4:28 pm }

Thank you Martin, this is good information.


Martin Reply:

You are most welcome Quinn. I’m pleased that you’re still with us after all this time 🙂


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