Cyr column: Presidential elections and the Electoral College
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
“It is not only the unit vote for the presidency we are talking about, but a whole solar system of government.”
- Sen. John F. Kennedy, 1956
Former Vice President Joe Biden will become the next President of the United States, in consequence of his victory in the 2020 presidential election. Biden’s victory in the popular vote was clear not too long after election day around the country, but those votes do not directly determine our president and vice president. Rather, the indirect mechanism of the Electoral College actually selects the chief executive of the nation.
What exactly is this complicated, obscure institution? Why not just vote and let the most determine the winner? Voting is the American way, and straightforward procedures along with straight talk are American ideals.
The answer is that the framers of the Constitution of the United States of America were committed to popular representation, but opposed uncompromised concentration of power. The Constitution begins “We, the people …” At the same time, the framers feared untrammeled mob rule.
The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to construct the new Constitution were well aware that some effective central authority was necessary. The earlier Articles of Confederation, put in place from the start of the American Revolution, had proven ineffective.
There was no workable executive authority. The Articles were sufficient to aid the revolutionary cause during the long, terrible, costly war against Great Britain, but they were insufficient to serve as the foundation for a functioning national government.
Above all, the framers wanted to restrain central governmental and related political power. They regarded these as inherently dangerous. A powerful head of state could easily abuse the position, and the British Crown provided Exhibit A. A powerful legislature could also become dangerously assertive, and the British Parliament provided Exhibit B.
The framers responded by setting up a rather complex network of institutions in which none was dominant, actually or potentially, by design. They considered having the president selected by Congress. However, ultimately they discarded that concept as encouraging potentially dangerous cooperation between two of the three branches of the federal government, and perhaps entangling the judiciary as well.
The final Constitution involved clear separation in allocated powers, but required practical cooperation in carrying out the functions of government. Kennedy, opposed to proposed Electoral College changes, was alluding to this reality in his 1956 statement.
The Electoral College reflects this network approach. The College consists of people who are assembled in each state, plus the District of Columbia, to select the President and Vice President of the United States after the people vote. The electors are equal in number to a state’s congressional delegation. Federal office holders cannot serve.
Each state allocates all electors to the candidate for each high office receiving the most votes, except for Maine and Nebraska. In each of these states, two electors represent the winning ticket, while the others are allocated to the winning ticket in each congressional district.
Direct popular election would lead to campaigns focused on concentrated metropolitan populations. Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory permitted representation of an enormous but diffused alienated population. This confirmed the framers’ intent.
JFK stressed any Electoral College reform, to be responsible, must take place in wider context:
“If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements of the solar system, it is necessary to consider the others.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact email@example.com.