Note: This Op-Ed was published on NJ.com on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.
President-Elect Joe Biden, who won the Electoral College vote and the popular vote in November, is set to formally defeat Donald Trump 306 to 232, today, Dec. 14, when the electors cast their votes in the Electoral College.
Just four years ago, Trump received a similar number of Electoral College votes — 304 to 227 — to win White House despite losing the popular vote because in our system, it’s the Electoral votes that count.
So what makes the electoral votes so important, and why do they decide who leads our country?
Critics of the Electoral College – and there have been many, as it is the constitutional provision most frequently targeted for reform or abolition – have contended that its chief fault is that it is anti-democratic and does not reflect the will of the people. But this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the Electoral College furthers the democratic participation of the American people by truly nationalizing the presidential election, preserving the two-party system, and ensuring the role of the states in selecting the President.
In the summer of 1787, when the Founders met in Philadelphia, one of the first items for reform was the structure of the national government. The executive power under the Articles of Confederation had been conducted by committees of Congressional representatives. But the Founders, greatly influenced by the writings of the French jurist and political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, wanted a separation of governmental powers in order to prevent a too-powerful national government, which they feared would be tyrannical.
The executive power, which is the power to carry into effect – execute – the laws, was quickly conceived of as an office for one person, rather than a committee. It was assumed the executive, or presidency, would need to act with dispatch regarding enforcement questions, especially those dealing with foreign relations.
Instead of selecting the President through a national popular vote, the Founders decided upon what we have come to know as the Electoral College, although this term is not used in the Constitution. The College functions as a filtered way of electing the President. Slates of party activists are chosen by their states to be electors who officially vote for President after voters in the states have voted.
Why the need for a filtered vote? The Founders thought only people of the best character should be president and they thought the most prominent people in the various states – those who would serve as electors – would know who had the best character in the states suited to the job and would vote accordingly.
The Electoral College has not evolved to function in the way the Founders envisioned, however. Instead of prominent people as electors, party activists fill these positions. But they reflect the will of voters in the states. The winner of the electoral votes from each state is the winner of the popular vote in each state. (Nebraska and Maine have a slightly different system, wherein the electoral votes are allocated partly by congressional district and partly by state-wide popular vote results.) The key element is the role of the states (and Washington, D.C.) in 51 popular votes at the state level.
The state-based system ensures that campaigns are run on a national scale, rather than a regional one. Each election cycle, there are different “swing states” (states that are necessary to win the 270 electoral votes needed to win but where no clear candidate preference is assured) and they change as the populations change.
If we had a national popular vote system, then candidates would simply go where their voter bases are located. For Republicans this would be in the rural and suburban areas, while Democrats would campaign in cities. Not only would candidates gravitate to their geographic voter regions, they would also likely become more extreme in their positions. Under the Electoral College system the appeals to swing states require candidates to moderate their messages in order to appeal to the voters in swing states.
Finally, if we switched to deciding elections based on a national popular vote, we would likely diminish or even destroy the two-party system. Our parties are organized around a handful of leaders and whomever is president is the de facto leader of their party. If a national popular vote were instituted, then multiple candidates would be incentivized to run as a regional favorite and, without an Electoral College threshold to meet, they could win without a majority of popular votes. Such divided presidential races would likely weaken the parties and encourage regional parties or issue-based parties and coalition governments.
The Electoral College is not a strange historical anachronism. It is a selection system that reduces political extremism, nationalizes presidential campaigns, preserves the popular vote at the state level, and protects the two-party system nationally. Although it does not function quite as the Founders envisioned, it maintains our liberties by preserving our republican form of limited government.
Montclair State Associate Professor Ian J. Drake appears as an expert in an Amazon Prime documentary titled “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story,” about the Electoral College’s role in the American political system, historically and today.