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Time for reform considering the failures of the electoral co


Description: This paper discusses the many shortcomings of the Electoral

College, and posits possible alternative electoral processes which likely be

more democratic.

Time for Reform?

Considering the failures of the Electoral College

A common misconception among American is that when they vote they elect the President. The truth is not

nearly this simple. What in fact happens when a person votes is that there vote goes for an Elector. This

Elector (who is selected by the respective state in which a vote is cast) casts ballots for two individuals, the

President and the Vice-President. Each state has the same number of electors as there are Senate and House

of Representative members for that State. When the voting has stopped the candidate who receives the

majority of the Electoral votes for a state receives all the electoral votes for that state. All the votes are

transmitted to Washington, D.C. for tallying, and the candidate with the majority of the electoral votes wins

the presidency. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the responsibility of selecting the next

President falls upon the House of Representatives. This elaborate system of Presidential selection is thought

by many to be an 18th century anachronism (Hoxie p. 717), what it is in fact is the product of a 200 year old

debate over who should select the President and why.

In 1787, the Framers in their infinite wisdom, saw the need to respect the principles of both Federalists and

States Righters (republicans) (Hoxie p. 717). Summarily a compromise was struck between those who felt

Congress should select the President and those who felt the states should have a say. In 1788 the Electoral

College was indoctrinated and placed into operation. The College was to allow people a say in who lead them,

but was also to protect against the general public's ignorance of politics. Why the fear of the peoples

ignorance of politics? It was argued that the people, left to their own devices could be swayed by a few

designing men to elect a king or demagogue (McManus p. 19). With the Electoral College in place the people

could make a screened decision about who the highest authority in the land was to be (Bailey & Shafritz (p.

60); at the same time the fear of the newly formed nation being destroyed by a demagogue could be put to rest

because wiser men had the final say.

200 years later the system is still designed to safeguard against the ignorant capacities of the people. The

Electoral College has remained relatively unchanged in form and function since 1787, the year of its

formulation. This in itself poses a problem because in 200 years the stakes have changed yet the College has

remained the same. A safeguard against a demagogue may still be relevant, but the College as this safeguard

has proved flawed in other capacities. These flaws have shed light on the many paths to undemocratic

election. The question then is what shall the priorities be? Shall the flaws be addressed or are they

acceptable foibles of a system that has effectively prevented the rise of a king for 200 years? To answer this

question we must first consider a number of events past and possible that have or could have occurred as a

result of the flaws Electoral College.

The Unfaithful Elector

Under the current processes of the Electoral College, when a member of the general electorate casts a vote

for a candidate he is in fact casting a vote for an Electoral College member who is an elector for that

candidate. Bound only by tradition this College member is expected to remain faithful to the candidate he has

initially agreed to elect. This has not always happened. In past instances Electoral College member have

proved to be unfaithful. This unfaithful elector ignores the will of the general electorate and instead selects

candidate other than the one he was expected to elect (McGaughey, p. 81). This unfaithfulness summarily

subjugates all the votes for a candidate in a particular district. In all fairness it is important to note that

instances of unfaithful electors are few and far between, and in fact 26 states have laws preventing against

unfaithful electors (McGauhey, p.81). Despite this the fact remains that the possibility of an unfaithful

elector does exist and it exists because the system is designed to circumvent around direct popular election

of the President.

The Numbers Flaw

The unfaithful elector is an example of how the popular will can be purposely ignored. The Numbers Flaw

reveals how the will of the people can be passed over unintentionally due to flaw of design (McNown, Lecture

Notes, 2/20/93).

(a)6/b(4) | (a)6/b(6) Candidate a: 18

| Candidate b: 22


| Electoral Votes

(a)6/b(4) | (a)0/b(10) Candidate a: 3

| Candidate b: 1

In this theoretical example candidate (a) receives a minority of the popular votes with 18, but a majority of

the electoral votes with three. Candidate (b) receives a majority of the popular votes with 22, but receives

only one electoral vote. Under the winner-take-all system, the candidate with the majority of the electoral

votes not only wins the state but also receives all the electoral votes for that state. In this hypothetical

situation candidate (a) receiving a minority of the popular votes wins the state and takes all the electoral

votes. The acceptability of this denial of the popular will, unintentional or otherwise, is questionable to say

the least.

Tie Game

The problem posed by no one person receiving a majority of the electoral votes (a tie) first came to head in

the 1800 elections. The success of political parties served to turn Electoral College members into agents of

the parties Bailey & Shafritz p. 61). This so galvanized the 1800 elections that the Republican electors cast

their two votes for the two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr respectively. It was

assumed that Jefferson would be President and Burr the Vice-President. Unfortunately their was no

constitutional doctrine to affirm this assumption. As a result the ever audacious Aaron Burr challenged

Jefferson election as President and the issue had to be sent to the House for resolution (Bailey & Shafritz, p.

61). Any debating on the issue was only incidental; when all was said and done the issue was decided by one

man, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, and the Federalists were in control of the House when the decision was to

be made. Hamilton, who disagreed with Jefferson but overwhelmingly distrusted Burr, orchestrated a blank

ballot initiative among the Federalists which allowed the Republicans to select Jefferson as President (Bailey

& Shafritz, p. 61). Though this entire incident was significant the most noteworthy aspect was the fact that

the President was essentially chosen by one man. The final decision was taken entirely out of the hands of the

people and was left to the mercy of the biases of a single individual. In all fairness it should be noted that the

12th amendment was formulated out of the Jefferson-Burr to forever lay to rest the question of who is

President and Vice-President in a tie. The 12th amendment stipulates that electors are to cast separate votes

for the President and Vice President, and summarily an event such as the Jefferson-Burr incident cannot

happen again. (Bailey & Shafritz p. 61). In effect the 12th prevents the issue of a tie from going to the House

under a very narrow scope of conditions. This is far less of a solution than one which would have prevented

this issue from going to the House at all because when the issue of who would be President went to the House

in 1800, the issue of democracy was left to compromise. This all serves to reveal yet another flaw of the

Electoral College process. Congressional selection of the President can lead to democratic compromise. This

would seem an area of concern. Though some would argue we have had 200 years to distance ourselves from

such maladies as the elections of 1800, the following reveals how close to home the flaws 200 year old

institution can hit.

The Wallace Debacle

In 1968 a three-way tie nearly brought to head the same undemocratic modes of presidential selections that

emerged 200 years earlier with the Jefferson-Burr incident. The 1968 elections race was extremely close.

Richard Nixon barley received a majority of the electoral votes to win the presidency. Had Nixon failed to get

a majority a number of bizarre scenarios might have emerged. The candidates in the race were Richard Nixon,

Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace respectively. Had Nixon failed to win a majority Wallace would have been

in a position to control who the next President would be (Bailey & Shafritz p. 65). Though he could not have

won himself Wallace could have used his votes as swing votes to give Nixon a majority, or give Humphrey

enough to prevent Nixon from getting a majority (Bailey & Shafritz p. 65). In the latter instance the issue

would have, as in 1800, been sent to the House for rectification. In either instance Wallace would have had a

great deal to gain, and the temptation to wheel and deal (at the compromise of democracy) would have been

great indeed. It is possible Wallace could have used his influence with Southern House members to get

Humphrey elected. In the process he would have likely `garnered great political clout for himself. Wallace

could have bargained with Nixon for an administration position in Nixon's cabinet in return for Wallace's

electoral votes. The possible scenarios are endless, and for the most part irrelevant. What is relevant is that

the processes of the Electoral College again paved a path for democratic compromise, just as it did in 1800. If

time is the mechanism for change then apparently not enough time has passed.


The shortcomings of the Electoral College presented above are only a few of many flaws. Others flaws include

the bias toward small and large states, which gives these states a disproportionate advantage; The bias

toward those who live in urban areas and therefore enjoy a stronger vote than those living in sparsely

populated areas (Bailey & Shafritz p. 63). The list of flaws is extensive. The question that still remains is

whether or not the flaws are extensive enough to warrant change? The Electoral College has successfully

provided the U.S. with its Presidents for 200 years and has done so without allowing the ascension of a

demagogue. But in the process of 200 years of electing the College has allowed the will of the people to be

compromised. Granted at the time of the 1800 elections the College was young and its shortcomings were not

entirely clear. 200 years later the flaws have revealed themselves or have been revealed in various fashion.

The question remains then are flaws acceptable considering the duty the College performs? If the purpose of

the College is to provide democracy but prevent demagoguery then its success seems uncertain. The U.S. has

seen no demagogue but has seen compromise of democracy. The evidence shows that the flaws of the Electoral

College are responsible for democratic compromise. It would seem then that the flaws of the college are

self-defeating to the purpose of the college. If this is then it is definitely time for reform.

1 Bailey, Harry A. Jr., Shafritz, Jay M. The American Presidency, (California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1988)

Chapter III

2 McGauhey, Elizabeth P., "Democracy at Risk," Policy Review, Winter 1993: 79-81

3 R. Gordon Hoxie, "Alexander Hamilton and the Electoral System Revisited," Presidential Studies Quarterly, v.

18 n. 4 p. 717-720

4 John F. McManus, "Let the Constitution Work," The New American, v. 8 n. 14 p. 19

5 William P. Hoar, "The Electoral College: How The Republic Chooses its President," New American, v. 8 n. 16 p.


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