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Thursday, September 30, 2004
The Electoral College

Once again, quite predictably, we're hearing talk of abolishing the Electoral College. It's not likely to happen; amending the Constitution is not trivial. But some people think it should be abolished, especially after another presidential election (2000) in which one candidate won the Electoral College, and therefore the presidency, and the other won the popular vote, which doesn't mean very much. If those who advocate the College's abolition are rising above the partisan grievances of the moment, then their desire must be rooted in a belief that either that the states of the United States don't matter any more, or that a sincere dedication to democracy overrides all other concerns.

The American Founders were very suspicious of direct democracy, which has the potential to become very tyrannical. So they gave us a democratic republic, in which representatives of the people are elected democratically. The federal government has become more democratic over the years. Originally, state legislatures elected US Senators, but they are now elected by popular vote (which also required a constitutional amendment). This was a major reduction of states' power. To my mind, more democracy is not necessarily a good or safe thing.

The Founders' suspicions extended to all centralized governmental power, however. They created a system of horizontal separation of powers, with checks and balances; thus we have at the federal level an executive branch (the President and the bureaucracy), a legislative branch (Congress), and a judicial branch (the Supreme Court and other federal courts). They share power, and they compete with and check each other.

But our system of government divides power vertically, too. We call it federalism. The national (federal) government in some ways outranks the state governments, but the states are not mere subordinates to a national authority; they have a measure of sovereignty of their own. There are multiple local levels of government within states, too. This vertical separation of powers, though much infringed, also limits the power of any government official or body.

One might argue that eliminating the Electoral College will not have any serious structural effect on government. But I am not confident that we can afford to remove any of the structural safeguards which protect our freedom, or that we can afford to give any major symbolic indications that the states don't matter any more.

Some argue that we need the Electoral College's illusion of greater majorities than actually exist in the popular vote. I can see how the math works that way, but I am unconvinced that this is a necessity. I am more concerned that eliminating the College will erode the influence of people in small states who don't live like or think like their fellow countrymen on the two coasts. It's not just that the College gives voters in small states slightly more influence than their fellow citizens in populous states. It is that the Electoral College forces candidates to campaign to voters in nearly every state, rather than just to the major population centers. The result, at least in theory, is a president of 50 states, not just a president of 50.1 percent of the people.

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