The Electoral College, Selecting Presidents by an Elitist Constitutional Measure

by Ralph Scharnau

The successful war for independence was a political, rather than a social, upheaval that secured American freedom from British colonialism. Fearing a unitary monarchy, the new American government created a representative system with separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches and checks and balances to prevent the rise of tyranny. After a period of experimentation, delegates gathered at Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted a frame of government at a Constitutional Convention.

All the Convention delegates were white, male, and wealthy. They believed that government controlled by men like themselves would avoid the excesses of democracy and ensure rule by men like themselves. They wrote a Constitution that excluded women, non-property holding men, and blacks from political participation.

After its adoption in 1789, however, the Constitution was changed by a series of Amendments, court decisions, and state actions to make it fairer and more democratic. Voting in most states no longer required property ownership by the Civil War, African blacks (most of whom were slaves before the Civil War) finally secured freedom and citizenship in the Thirteenth (1865) and Fourteenth (1868) Amendments, and women secured the right to vote in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment (1920).

In addition, the First Ten Amendments to the Constitution (ratified in 1791) expanded civil liberties. The requirement that Senators be selected by the state legislatures was changed by the Seventh Amendment (1913) to direct election by the people matching the popular election of Representatives provided for in the original Constitution.

Despite these advances, the United States continues to use an undemocratic method to select our highest ranking elected official. Rather than by a direct vote of the people, the Constitution provides that the presidential selection rests with an elitist Electoral College chosen by the states. The number of electors from each state equals the number of representatives and senators it sent to Congress.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans want to elect the president by direct popular vote. The nation’s highest office ought to go to the person who gets the most votes just like any office holder. Yet the presidency is still decided by 538 state electors.

In the 2016 election, the candidate who lost the popular vote won the presidency. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than 3 million votes. This makes her the most popular presidential candidate to ever lose.

Rather than mounting a national campaign, the Electoral College forces presidential candidates to focus on swing states. This led to a mismatch between the electoral and popular votes in 2016 because Trump won several large states (such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) by narrow margins, gaining all of their electoral votes in the process, even as Clinton claimed other large states (such as California, Illinois, and New York) by much wider margins.

Utilizing popular votes alone, as happens with every other election in America at every level of government, appears impossible as only a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and three-fourths of the state legislatures, could end our elitist system. Because almost all states use a winner-take-all system, the election ends up being decided in just a dozen or so swing states, leaving tens of millions of voters on the sidelines.

At the present time, the Electoral College fails to represent the nation’s demographic and geographic diversity. By contrast, a direct popular vote would restore political equity and majority rule, treating all Americans equally, no matter where they live, their gender or their racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Ralph Scharnau
March 2, 2017

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