It is amazing to me just how little everybody seems to know about the Electoral College. And included in that thought are a wide variety of derivative issues regarding which the public appears to be equally clueless: why the founders invented the College in the first place, what role it was expected to play, whether that role has evolved into something essentially positive or negative in terms of the democratic nature of our American republic, and whether the electors are supposed to be marionettes who cannot and may not act other than in accordance with the instructions received on Election Day from the citizens they represent or if the whole concept of elector-as-unfree-automaton obviates the whole point of the Electoral College existing in the first place.
Those are a lot of questions! To prove me wrong, feel entirely free to answer them without looking anything up first. I thought so! And yet…I can’t remember ever reading more about the Electoral College, much of it expressing diametrically opposing opinions, than in the course of the last few weeks since the presidential election. Just the other day, for example, an elector from Texas, one Christopher Suprun, took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to announce his intention specifically not to cast his vote for Donald Trump despite the fact that the latter won in Texas by well over 800,000 votes. The response—at least by readers who took the time to post their responses on the Times’ website—was remarkable: over 6300 people posted responses on the day the article appeared and on the following day. And they were remarkable too in terms of the degree to which they showed just how unsure the populace seems to be about the role of the College and the electors who constitute its ranks. One reader addressed the author directly and wrote, “You are a faithless elector and a traitor to the republic.” Another, also speaking directly to the author, wrote, “Thank you for serving your country faithfully and bravely.” Both comments had, not hundreds, but thousands of comments supporting their positions. But which was essentially correct? And is the answer to that question different if we are discussing the best path forward for our nation or if we are discussing the essential nature of the Electoral College itself and the appropriate limits of its power? Those are the questions I’d like to write about this week.
The first detail most American seem not to realize is that the whole concept of an electoral college is not a home-grown notion, but something with roots deep in extra-American history. Originally a kind of check against the inherent capriciousness of a hereditary monarchy (i.e., one in which the head of state comes to power merely by inheriting the office from the person who occupied it previously), the notion was essentially a way to guarantee that completely inept heirs-apparent could be kept from power. There were even examples in which the electors were free to choose anyone at all to reign without respect to that individual’s relationship to the former regent. But the principle behind the concept of an electoral college in both versions was the same: to guarantee that the national leader would be someone of merit and worth and not merely someone born into the right family at the right moment in history.
In our American context, the Electoral College was instituted for two basic reasons, one of which was to speak to that specific issue of worthiness to govern. Here, of course, the founders’ fear was not that the presidency would somehow become a heritable office that would pass from parent to child and that the presidency therefore needed to be protected in advance from an incompetent heir—even Alexander Hamilton, who argued before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the presidency should be a kind of elective monarchy in which the monarch would rule for life unless impeached, did not favor a hereditary system in which the office would remain within a specific family—but rather an analogous fear related to the gullibility of the public.
The great flaw in the democratic system, as any student of history knows, is that it presumes the people capable of making thoughtful, mature decisions with respect to the choice of a national leader. For the most part, this is a rational assumption that accords reasonably well with reality. But history is filled with examples of nations perversely, yet fully democratically, electing leaders whose policies were clearly inimical to the nation’s best interests. The Nazis, for example, won the German federal election of November 1932 with a comfortable plurality—winning more than 37% of the vote, to the Socialists’ less than 22% and the Communists’ less than 15%—which victory led directly to totalitarianism, followed by war, followed by total defeat. There are many other examples as well of nations making horrific errors by putting their confidence in leaders whom the electorate ought to have shunned. And it was to speak directly to the possibility of national error on that scale that Article II of the Constitution, later modified by the Twelfth and Twenty-Third Amendments, called for the creation of an Electoral College. So that is the first of the two reasons that the founders instituted the Electoral College: to serve as a check against the poor judgment of the majority.
the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,”