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Federalism And The Electoral College

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Federalism, Democracy And Presidential Elections

Voting MachineThe director of the Institute For Principled Policy recently sent me an interesting article from US News And World Report about a sophomore government class being taught at Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger KY. It seems the students in the class drafted a bill for the Kentucky State Legislature which would require a change in the way Electoral College votes are awarded from the current winner-take-all system where the winner of the popular vote gets all of the state’s electoral votes, to an apportioned electoral college award, where the electoral vote is awarded according to the winner by congressional district with the winner of the popular vote getting the two votes representing the senatorial votes.

A quick reminder of how the Electoral College votes are distributed is in order. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the number of representatives it is entitled to in Congress plus two representing the Senate representation. The District of Columbia gets one congressional vote plus the two senatorial votes it would have if it were a state. That’s a total of 538 electoral votes with 270 (50% plus one) required for election.

Most states currently award electoral college votes on a winner-take-all basis. Only Nebraska and Maine award electoral votes according to congressional district. Interestingly, the congressional district method was the original intent of the Constitutional Convention and teacher Jon Davis’s students are working to return their state’s presidential election to a condition more closely resembling the original design. As discussed in a previous article, the founders wished to avoid direct democracy as an unstable form of government ultimately leading to anarchy followed inevitably by tyranny. Their intent was to provide a limited representational republican style of government.

But how do we know for sure that the founders wanted to avoid direct national democracy? The answer to that question is implicit in the design of the federal government. First, the federal government had little or no contact with the average citizen, save for the post office. That’s only fitting, since the purpose of the federal government, as designed, was to act as a specific agent of the states. A study of the US Constitution reveals that the federal government is given the authority to act as a limited agency of the states in three specific areas; defense, diplomacy and trade. Unless called into federal service as a state militiaman in time of war, most citizens simply had no need to be in contact with the federal government. Second, the very structure of the federal government, as originally designed, indicates that direct democracy was not part of the framers plan. Of the 2 houses of Congress only the House of Representatives was directly elected. Senators were chosen by state legislatures until the 17th amendment changed the method to a popular election mandate, thus destroying state participation in the federal government. Judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate; under the original design of state government representation in the Senate thus ensured that the individual states interests would be protected. And finally, the president was, under the original design, chosen by electors who were themselves chosen at the discretion of the individual states, usually by the state legislature. Thus, of the 3 separate branches of government created by the Constitution, only one-half of one of them was selected by direct election, albeit the most powerful one. In other words only 1/6 of the federal government was democratically elected.

The founders’ vision for the electoral college was for a group of wise men, uncommitted to any party or faction, who would independently vote for whom they believed would be the best possible choice to serve as chief executive. Within 15 years of the first meeting of the electoral college and the unanimous choice of George Washington as the first president the presidential election process was well down the road to domination by the fledgling political parties which arose out of the governmental milieu of Washington’s administration. The bones of contention in that rarified atmosphere were such issues of constitutional interpretation of federal authority, how the economy would be structured and foreign policy, especially regarding the French revolution. The 12th amendment essentially began the process of the institutionalization of special interests, what Madison called “faction” in Federalist No. 10, in the form of party politics. It allowed the running of teams for vice-president and president to ensure “unified government,” a euphemism for one party control. By the election of 1828, only 39 years after Washington’s first non-partisan election, the presidential elections were in the control of political parties at both the state and federal levels. The parties made sure that the federal nature of the presidential election was minimized by changing election laws state by state to adopt what is know as “general ticket” elections, where parties run slates of electors committed to specific teams of candidates for office. In general ticket states all voters statewide vote for the entire slate of committed electors. In states like Maine and Nebraska each congressional district votes for a specific committed elector with the popular vote winner getting the 2 senatorial electors, a far more federal system.

And you might think this author believes the system is broken and in need of repair, as the sophomore government class at Lloyd Memorial High School apparently does. And you’d be right. But it is important to understand that even in its current corrupt condition, the electoral college still works in preserving the federal nature of presidential elections. How? Think about these presidential elections- 2000, 1888, 1876 and 1824. In each of these elections the popular vote winner did not become the president. We’ll ignore the 1876 election since the process was so horribly corrupted both at the state and federal level that it is a complete wash-out in examining the electoral process. In the election of 2000 Albert Gore, Jr. won his support in urban centers by a large margin. George W. Bush won his support in the rural districts, also by a wide margin. The final margin of victory for Bush came down to under 500 votes in Florida. But the real story is that Bush carried several times as many counties as Gore, with fewer popular votes. Bush voters represented, with fewer popular votes, the electorate of a larger portion of the population than did Gore. The counties Bush carried covered more square area of the country by several times, with fewer popular votes. Similarly, in 1888 Grover Cleveland lost the electoral college votes with a higher popular vote margin than Rutherford B. Hayes. Cleveland won in the south by wide margins- 60% or more, but he lost in the north by tiny margins. Southern states at the time were small electoral college totals, so his popular totals looked big, but in fact he got his large overages in regional voting where it made no difference in the electoral college total. In other words, the electoral college did exactly what it was supposed to. It prevented an urban or regional majority from tyrannizing a rural or non-regional minority. It protected the unique properties of federalism in the presidential election process.

So how can presidential elections be restored to the federalist and non-partisan design intent of the founders?  The bill proposed by the sophomore government class is a good start. It would help to reinforce the federal nature of the election if each state awarded electoral college votes on the basis of congressional district. Partisanship could be at least partially removed from elections by running, in each congressional district, at least one non-committed elector. This would be the so-called “none of the above” choice so many have claimed that they want. This proposal could break the stranglehold that the two major parties currently have on presidential politics. If only 10% of the congressional districts chose the non-committed elector, it could throw the presidential choice to the House of Representatives. While some may think this undesirable, it is in fact the original intent of the founders. George Mason, during the debates at the Constitutional Convention said that 19 times out of twenty the choice of president would fall to the legislature under the proposed plan. Most agreed then proceeded to pass the plan. Does anyone believe that Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or a host of other dismal White House residents would have been chosen as the president by the House of Representatives? And what party would spend $100 million on a presidential campaign if there is a good chance of “none of the above” tripping up their groomed and vetted choice for the office? Of course, this is not a perfect solution but it would, probably, tend to increase the caliber of candidate chosen. It would also help remove emotional issues from the front burner in presidential politics and increase discussion of truly pivotal issues.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting or join a discussion on the forum.

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Posted in Commentary, The Vote.


One Response

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  1. Matt Miller says

    I agree. Get rid of the general ticket and keep the electoral college. The extra two electors could be elected by district electors instead of the general population. The electors’ names should appear on the ballot and not the Presidential candidate.