Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Checks and Balances

The Electoral College is one way the Founders sought to implement them.

We have recently heard a great deal about the alleged evils of the Electoral College, and progressive opinion would currently like to abolish what it views as an obstacle to true multicultural democracy. Reasonable people can disagree about the virtues of the college itself, but the underlying arguments here are deeply troubling for what they suggest about the very widespread ignorance of the Constitution. This is a matter of rudimentary civics education.

The main indictment of the Electoral College is that it stands in the way of the expression of the voting majority. The main problem with this argument should be apparent: very few people actually believe in using simple electoral majorities to decide each and every political question.

If we did that, then all contentious issues would be resolved not by the decisions of courts or elected assemblies, but by referenda or plebiscites. And if the United States did work on that basis, many victories that progressives cherish—such as the end of formal racial segregation, the legalization of abortion, and the recognition of same-sex marriages—would have been achieved much later than they were or not achieved at all. Quite assuredly, the mass immigration that has occurred since the 1970s would not have taken place. The Founders knew plenty of examples of direct, unmediated democracy from the ancient world—plebiscites, referenda, votes on ostracism—and they absolutely rejected them.

The fact that particular institutions stand in the way of the popular will does not mean that they are anti-democratic. The United States does not work on the basis of crude majoritarianism, and it was never intended to do so. Any elected representative who fails to understand that is in the wrong profession.

Progressives further allege that the Electoral College’s undemocratic setup betrays the institution’s origins in the political needs of slave states: states’ power in the college is based on their total number of representatives and senators, and the Three-Fifths Compromise originally gave Southern states extra representatives in proportion to their (non-voting) slave populations. The college as an institution is thus tainted by a history of racial oppression. Only by ending it can the country march along the path to true racial equality.

But if you actually read the Founding Fathers, you see they are constantly trying to balance and reconcile two competing forces, namely the people’s role as the basis of government and the need to restrain and channel the shifting passions of that same people. That is why the U.S. government has the structure it does of House, Senate, and presidency, each with its different terms of office. The goal is to ensure that all three will not suddenly be elected together in a single moment of national fervor or insanity. While those institutions all represent the people, they do so with different degrees of directness and immediacy.

At every stage, the Founders wished to create a system that defended minorities from the majority, and moreover to protect smaller and less powerful regions and communities from their overweening neighbors. That protection did not just involve defending the institution of slavery, but extended to any number of other potential conflicts and rivalries of a regional nature: urban versus rural, merchants against manufacturers, farmers against merchants and manufacturers, skeptics versus pious true believers.

The critical need for intermediary institutions explains the role of states, which is apparently such an acute grievance for critics of the Electoral College. As the question is often asked today: why does that archaic state system stand in the way of the national popular will, as expressed through the ballot box? But let’s pursue the argument to its logical conclusion. If the Electoral College is really such an unjustified check on true democracy, its sins are as nothing beside those of the U.S. Senate, whose members hold power regardless of the relative population of their home states. California and Texas each have two senators, and so do Wyoming and Vermont. Is that not absurd? Back in the 1920s, the undemocratic quality of that arrangement was a major grievance for the leaders of populous industrial states, who could not understand why the half-million people of Arizona (say) had exactly the same Senate clout as the 10 million of Pennsylvania.

The Founders were also far-sighted enough to realize that those crude population figures would change dramatically over time. Probably in 20 years or so, Arizonans will outnumber Pennsylvanians. In the long run, things really do balance out.

So the next time you hear an argument that the Electoral College has served its purpose and should be abolished, do press the speaker on how far that argument should be taken. Why should we have a U.S. Senate, and should it be abolished forthwith? Why do we have more than one house of Congress anyway? Why don’t we make all decisions through referendum?

The Founders actually did know what they were doing, and Americans urgently need to be taught to understand that.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.