• Exploring American History

Understanding the need for the Electoral College

Why do we have an Electoral College (EC)? It sounds so complicated. Wouldn’t it just be easier if the president/vice-president were elected by popular vote?

Maybe it would be easier, but it would not be fair. Here’s why . . .

Those who favor the idea of a democracy, especially those who live in states with sizeable populations, would prefer to do away with the EC, believing the popular vote should be used instead. The popular vote is fine when a state selects the senators it sends to Congress, but when it involves the president, who is elected by the entire country, this is not fair. People living in states with smaller populations, such as those in the Midwest (fly-overs), appreciate the founders’ wisdom for including the EC and want it to remain in the presidential election process – thereby ensuring they also have a voice.

When the country was established, two plans for representation of the states were discussed – the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. At that time, Virginia had the largest population and wanted each state’s representatives to congress to be chosen in accordance to the state’s population. Smaller states like Connecticut disagreed. They felt they would not have an equal voice due to being muffled by the sheer numbers from the larger states. They requested the same number of representatives (i.e. 3) be sent from each state. This was the basis of the New Jersey Plan.

After a goodly bit of back-and-forth among the members, Roger Sherman (CT) presented what was later named the Connecticut Compromise. This plan created a bicameral government (two parts), and incorporated both plans. The Virginia Plan became the House of Representatives. Each state would be divided into districts according to population and each district would send a representative to congress. The New Jersey Plan became the Senate, with an equal number of senators (2) from each state.

[Here’s a little FYI about the House and Senate . . . many times the words ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are used when referring to the two parts of Congress. ‘Upper’ refers to the Senate, while ‘Lower’ refers to the House. Some wonder if these words are used to mean the Senate outranks the House in some respect. Absolutely not! Actually, the terms originated from when Congress met in a house prior to the construction of the Capitol. The House met on the first (lower) floor and the Senate met on the second (upper) floor. That’s it! Merely a case of location . . . location . . . location.]

In order to ensure a fair say-so for each state during the presidential election, the framers included the Electoral College in the Constitution. In Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, it reads:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress . . .

Simply put – say a state has 25 representatives. When you add in its two senators, the state has 27 electors, or electoral votes. The quantity of votes generated in that state’s presidential election serves only to determine which candidate wins the state’s 27 votes. Most states use a ‘winner takes all’ approach. This means the candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state claims all of the state’s electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska do things a bit differently. They choose one elector per congressional district and two electors for the ticket with the highest statewide vote.

In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote while Donald Trump won the electoral vote – and the presidency. Clinton supporters became upset and expressed demands for the removal of the Electoral College so the president would be elected by popular vote instead. While this sounds logical to some degree, the wisdom of the framers is easily seen. The United States is composed of 3,141 counties. Donald Trump won 3,084. Hillary Clinton won 57.

Without the EC, much of the country might as well not bother with the time and expense of a presidential election. Largely populated states, such as California and New York, will always decide the winner; but what about Kansas and Wyoming? Don’t they also pay federal taxes like the citizens of California? Don’t they have a star in the flag’s union the same as New York?

Each state has the right to be heard in the national election for president/vice-president. The framers created the Electoral College to ensure they are.

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