Why the Electoral College is Bad for America – Part I

A book by George C. Edwards III, 2004.

Democracy is always an easy sell. If you admire democracy, if you feel that America is or should be a democracy, you’ll enjoy this book. If the 2000 election angered you not because Al Gore sought to extend recounts until Florida “got it right,” but instead because he won half a million more votes nationwide than George Bush and still lost, then this book is for you.

Purpose of the Electoral College. However, if you believe the Framers’ system served a distinct and noble purpose, that of providing an endless succession of George Washingtons, men of high public virtue, who arrive in office without political debts, and that any reform should address hundreds of years of political party corruption, then this work will disappoint. The purpose of the Electoral College isn’t Edwards’ concern.

Political Equality. Edwards’ work relies on an assumption, what he calls political equality. In political equality, every vote carries equal weight. His assumption of political equality demands popular election of the President. Since the President represents all the people, it is the only moral and just approach. To Edwards, any process unequal to perfect political equality is illegitimate. Thus, the Electoral College is illegitimate and must go.

Political equality in democracy is a nearly irresistible attraction. But it is an emotion, a passion. Consent of the governed in the American system doesn’t translate into “power to the people.” But that is where George C. Edwards III would take our nation. He isn’t alone. Since 1913 when America wandered from the Framers’ purposeful structure and ratified the 17th Amendment, academia and with it the government and judiciary increasingly assigned attributes to popular will that would shock the men of 1787. I don’t claim to know the influence of Edwards’ 2004 work, other than to relate the incorporation of National Popular Vote Inc., only two years later in 2006.

Edwards believes the Framers’ central opposition to popular elections no longer exist. As opposed to the awful means of communication in 1787 when the people were generally uninformed, enough information is available to 21st century Americans to make informed choices on their own without the need for intermediary electors. I say information isn’t wisdom. While our Framers famously separated powers, a lesser-known brilliance is their separation of electors, in which they made distinctions among electors to their House, Senate, Presidency, and Supreme Court. The 17th Amendment muddied the distinction and neutered a once proud and effective Senate. If Edwards gets his way, wave goodbye to the last vestige of the Framers’ federal plan of divided powers.

Cheap Shots. As a PhD Political Scientist, Dr. Edwards surprises the reader with unnecessary derision of the Framers and their modern supporters. Any book in its opening pages that slams the Framers’ system as a “totally arbitrary, largely irrational 18th century counting system” earns two quick strikes from me, and made me wonder why I should slog through the remaining pages. An oft-used derogatory term ascribed to modern defenders is “faulty premises.” Other gratuitous terms like, “flawed foundations, jerry-rigged improvisation, perverse institution, hocus-pocus,” makes for an annoying read.

Contrary to Edwards, what is certain is that delegates to the Federal Convention devoted enormous thought, debate, and committee work to presidential elections. That the process wasn’t decided until late in the convention doesn’t imply arbitrariness and irrationality; it illustrated its importance. It wasn’t a light matter. As Gouverneur Morris warned, “Original vice here could not be corrected.” The Framers had to get it right. They did.

More Problems. I intended to itemize all of Edwards’ numerous complaints, his criticisms of the Electoral College. But, it hardly matters because he simply regards it as wrong. All of the Electoral College is wrong. He sums his observations this way: “Direct election . . . would not diminish benefits from the Electoral College that . . . do not exist.”1

Which System? Another irritant is that Edwards often doesn’t specify which arrangement upsets him. Is it the Framers’ plan or is it the highly modified “two-party system?” He asks, “Is the winner-take-all system in the Electoral College the critical institution underpinning of the two-party system?” as if parties were part of the 1787 plan.

This isn’t to say he ignored the rise of political parties and what they did to the intent of Article II. He writes, that by 1816, Rufus King observed that electors had become rubber-stamps. Joseph Story complained in 1833 that electors pledged to candidates subverted and frustrated the expectations of the Framers.2

But why blame the Framers for what the parties did to their system? Their system begins with the people and was expected to end more often than not with the House of Representatives. Is the House an un-democratic institution?

Rather than put his intellect toward devising reforms to achieve the Framers’ goal, that of appointing quality men like George Washington, Edwards would accept two-party corruption under a direct vote system. He admits that while the people often make mistakes, he writes there is no safer, no better way to elect our public officials than through popular democracy. To him, this is the essence of “consent of the governed.” So what if the people are foolish? Vox populi may err. No matter, the President must be of the people.

It’s a shame he lost focus on the purpose of the Presidency. Its purpose isn’t to be buddy-buddy with the masses. That’s for Representatives. The President was to secure the blessings of liberty.

With rare exception, presidential nominees over a lifetime scratch and climb their way upward through party ranks. Upon election, Edwards doesn’t ask how these people suddenly drop the mantle of party leader and altruistically assume the duties of President. By definition, political parties, which are a collection of interests, put their ambition and aggrandizement ahead of all else. Edward naively believes party Presidents “rise above parochial interests and represent the nation as a whole . . . “

Why the Electoral College is Bad . . . is less a reasoned argument FOR popular elections, than a microscopic critique of Article II’s perceived shortcomings. Unlike his thorough analysis of several presidential elections forward from 1800, he curiously doesn’t hold up the experience of other countries for examination. If popular election of presidents is so manifestly, so universally moral, why didn’t he examine in detail the outcomes in other countries? What about Russia, Venezuela, Honduras, . . . ? Do these popular presidents protect liberty? Oops. I forgot. To Edwards, liberty or tyranny are immaterial as long as every vote is equal.

The Senate & Judiciary. What about precious political equality in the Senate? Two Senators each for WY and CA? Really? He sloughs off the violation and the 17th Amendment as historical irrelevancies, writing, “The Senate is explicitly designed to represent states and the interests within them.” Bzzzt! Sorry, no sale. Today’s Senators are at-large politicians who sort of represent people from designated geographic areas. They’ve had nothing to do with representing the corporate states since 1913. Edwards is so uncomfortable with the politically inequitable Senate, he doesn’t even list “Senate” in the index. As for the Judiciary, he simply gaffs off electing federal judges as “not feasible.” Huh?

Conclusion. I’m only warming up. Part II next week.

1. Edwards, G. C. (2004). Why the Electoral College is Bad for America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 155.
2. Ibid., 83.

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