Thoughts on the Electoral College

Jeff Tulis’ astute essay comparing the role the Electoral College played, or could have, in 2016 versus the role it should play in 2020 provoked a few disconnected thoughts. These are my own; I do not mean to place them in opposition to anything Tulis writes.

I agree the situations of 2016 and 2020 are different. More broadly, it seems to me that the Electoral College cannot help us much, at least any longer, with demagoguery, if it ever did. It has become a pass-through mechanism whose only purpose is registering the constitutional voting formula that, as Tulis notes, enhances the influence of small states. That passivity has attained quasi-constitutional status through generational assent, in much the same way James Madison deferred to generational practice on the constitutionality of the National Bank despite his continuing originalist objections. The Electoral College might serve an ancillary but imperfect check on demagoguery by requiring what Daniel Patrick Moynihan—speaking in the Senate in 1979 against the same amendment against which, as Tulis notes, Herbert Storing testified—called a constitutional system that, at every turn, requires “two majorities.” That check, of course, can simply harden into obstinance if we are permanently polarized along geographical lines—a danger to which Madison also spoke. That has been the condition of roughly the last generation. It is unclear to me the phenomenon is permanent.

I do think the Electoral College can still play an important role in broadening buy-in to the concept of majority rule, even if doing so entails disproportionate influence for smaller states. Lastly, the demagoguery that surrounds the presidency may be less a function of how we select presidents than of how we empower them. I once asked my teacher George W. Carey how Hamilton could possibly have believed the mode of presidential election “afford[ed] a moral certainty” that only the eminent would prevail. Carey replied, as I recall it, that Hamilton could not have predicted the extraordinary power concentrated in the presidency—or the celebrity status it confers—both of which attract demagogues. I agree with Tulis that we need to think about how to avoid electing demagogues. But—while presidents matter, and should—the most powerful barrier to demagogues may be less how presidents are elected than how much power they wield once they take office.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Electoral College

  1. Thanks for continuing the conversation, Greg. I have a different answer to the question that you proposed to George Carey. The Federalist is an iterated argument, one that unfolds rhetorically in order to bring potential voters for ratification around to new ways of thinking. The old way of thinking, as you know maybe better than me, relied on virtue more than does the Constitution, as defended by The Federalist. Virtue is not absent, but it becomes a less demanding threshold. What you asked Carey about in Federalist 68 is revised in the later iteration in Federalist 76 — to this: “there will always be great possibility of having the place [of the presidency] supplied by a man of abilities, at least respectable.”

  2. A direct vote for the president with the winner being the first past the post, possibly with a plurality as low as thirty per cent of the vote is not majority rule. Far from it. Should not refer to a first past the post direct vote as representing majority rule when it does not.
    Madison and Hamilton knew and understood that.

    1. Thanks OG for this comment, which I just now read. Not sure where you got the assumption that anyone here at The Constitutionalist is proposing some particular plurality method. As you know, today a president can be elected with less than a majority of the popular vote and even less of the popular vote than the winner of the electoral college. Most of the proposed constitutional amendments require a run-off, if the popular vote is not sufficiently large. The inter-state compact proposal, which would not require a constitutional amendment, would leave the present vote totals as they are, but award the presidency to the candidate who won the most popular votes.

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