A Defense for the US Electoral College

Say what thou wilt about the United States Electoral College: you may call it undemocratic, blame it for its seeming lack of legitimacy in relation to the will of the majority by deeming popular vote as the supreme decisive factor, and you can also take your angst out on the streets and demand for its demise and replacement. However, the fact that Hillary Clinton lost the election is due to a 229 years-old provision from the US Constitution (first presented by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No.68) which sets up the rules for electing the American President. Accordingly, it definitely isn’t the kind of situation in which the rules have changed during the game, and all parties involved have agreed to respect the constitutional provisions since entering the race.

The ugly truth is that Hillary lost due to poor strategy and too much confidence in election polls: according to political polls aggregator RealClearPolitics, she had been in the lead since July 28th 2016, and by November 8th (the day of the elections) she was ahead by 3.2 points. Trump has only taken the lead during key controversial moments of the electoral race, and for a very brief time: on May 24th he had an edge of 0.2%, and from July 24th to July 28th he peaked at a 1.1% lead which quickly decreased and allowed the Democratic nominee to be on top for the remaining days of the campaign. However, the polls have once again proven that political science and sociology can be as wrong as weather forecasting, and that the methodology they approached has only demonstrated its accuracy from a majoritarian vote perspective which the elections of 2000 of 2016 have deemed to be irrelevant. Much like the Brexit vote from late June, the will of the people and the demographic spreading of votes have once again shaken the overconfident expectations of analysts.

If we were to take into account the polls and surveys, Clinton would have scored an easy win. Image Source: RealClearPolitics.

If we were to take into account the polls and surveys, Clinton would have scored an easy win. Image Source: RealClearPolitics.

Accordingly, the argument is that only a small part of the “fault” for this poor estimation is due to the way the Electoral College works. Throughout the campaign, Trump and his staff have always seemed to know how to handle the situation and take advantage of the context in order to reach the most favorable result, and prestigious career politicians have faced defeat in electoral confrontations with the New York real estate billionaire. Demagoguery and sheer theatrics aside, the Republican has been much more efficient in targeting the right voters.

Furthermore, while the exact numbers in terms of financing are still unclear, The Washington Post mentions the amount of money each candidate has raised by October 19. If the data is true, then Hillary Clinton has benefited from $500 million dollars more than Donald Trump, as the Democrat has raised 1.3 billion, while the Republican received only 795 million. This financing argument was made specifically in order to point out to Donald Trump’s superior strategy in terms of targeting the right demographics and getting the message across in the right areas.

But after using this brief digression to settle that the Republican victory is actually the result of better campaigning tactics which benefited from far less financial resources, let’s get back on track and talk about the Electoral College, its original intentions, and its relevance for today’s American political landscape.

In an article he wrote for The Atlantic, Peter Beinart argued that the Electoral College was established specifically to prevent the rise to power of demagogues, unprepared individuals, and/or potential spies for foreign governments. The Founding Fathers, as true Enlightenment men, were very fearful of a potential tyranny of the majority that would cause destruction to the federalist establishment they put together: they were all avid readers of both classical and contemporary political philosophy and knew about the problems of direct democracies. James Madison himself was very critical of the will of the masses and knew that their opinion could be easily shaped and manipulated by skilled orators. Additionally, Alexander Hamilton feared that unqualified individuals might win presidency, and laid the foundations for a  well-leveraged and balanced way to elect the head of the executive.

From left to right: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. They were the brilliant minds behind Publius, the fictional author of the Federalist Papers. Their political thought would lay the foundation of the American Federation, a political system that still functions today. Image Source: http://online.hillsdale.edu/image/template/OnlineBanner_FederalistPapers.jpg

From left to right: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. They were the brilliant minds behind Publius, the fictional author of the Federalist Papers. Their political thought would lay the foundation of the American Federation, a political system that still functions today. Image Source:Hillsdale College.

In his masterpiece of political thought, Federalist No. 10, James Madison famously stated that “pure democracy” (to be understood as the Ancient Greek direct democracy) is incompatible with personal security and the rights of property. The Father of the Constitution was certain that the kind of political system he was trying to establish, the modern republic, relied on certain unquestionable and undeniable backbones and leverages, as well as a system of checks and balances which would draw a clear line between what is legitimate and what is not. After all, Western culture has been irreversibly marked by the democratic condemnation of Socrates: one of the prime examples where the lack of a powerful fundamental law which limits power demonstrates that the people themselves can be tricked via rhetoric and manipulated to act much in the way the more influential orator or opinion leader told them to.

Madison knew that the will of the masses can be dangerous and, 2 years after the ratification of the Federalist Constitution, he wrote 19 fundamental amendments (which were trimmed down by the Senate and summed up in only 12 pieces) that establish some of the inalienable rights of the American citizens. After Congressional deliberation, only 10 of them have been, and they became known as The Bill of Rights. The visionary genius of Madison would also be acknowledged more than 200 years later, when another one of his original amendments (regarding the Congress’ interdiction to vote for its own pay raises) was ratified as the 27th and still the most recent amendment to the Constitution. As a complimentary argument, it can also be stated that The Bill of Rights is undemocratic and authoritarian, as it established consensus on a series of issues and limits debate on free speech, free association, freedom of religious practice, inviolable private property, the right to a fair trial, and the right of each state to establish its own legal framework in compliance to the federal law. Under these provisions, certain rights cannot be denied or blocked by the will of a majority, and the only way to amend or repeal the amendments involves a majoritarian vote in both Houses of Congress and a ratification by the incumbent President. Under such a modern constitutional framework, Socrates wouldn’t even be put on trial, as his actions represent the expression of free speech and free assembly. Conversely, the tyranny of a majority won’t be able to vote for the US President, as the Electoral College possess the right leverages in order to prevent dangerous individuals from becoming heads of state.

But what is the story of this Electoral College and how does it work? Well, The Framers have found themselves in the middle of a dilemma: the head of the executive could be either voted by Congress (much like the British Parliament elects its Prime Minister), or by popular vote. Both perspectives had their own advocates and critics, and it is widely agreed that the Electoral College is a political compromise in order to both prevent the very frightening idea of a tyranny of the majority, as well as limiting the power of the Congress. In order to make this system work and satisfy all the parts involved, they agreed to endow each state with a number of electors equal to the number of state legislators they have (a sum of the number of the state representatives and the senators).

Infographic about the US Presidential elections. Image Source: USA.gov

Infographic about the US Presidential elections. Image Source: USA.gov

Therefore, when citizens cast their ballots, they actually tell their electors how to vote and ultimately, it all comes down to the majoritarian will within each state, which is mathematically determined according to its number of Congressional representatives. Most states have a “winner takes all electors” system, which basically means that whichever presidential candidate scores the highest number of the votes will theoretically get the state electors’ vote of confidence. There are, however, two exceptions of states that allow for a proportional distribution of the electors’ votes (which means that the votes are theoretically divided between according to the will of the majority): Nebraska and Maine are champions of this model and they can serve as factors of surprise and unpredictability.

But why do the previous statements have an emphasis on the word “theoretically”? Well, the Founding Fathers were quite aristocratic – in the classical Aristotelian sense that they believed in the superior wisdom of a restricted and well-educated group of people who became endowed with an extra layer of leverage on the will of the voters from their home states. Accordingly, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68 that a wise and autonomous Electoral College should be established in order to determine if the elected president is qualified, not engaged in demagoguery, and also independent from foreign interests. Accordingly, it was settled that people can directly elect their members of Congress and might simply make horrible choices. However, these horrible elected representatives would find themselves in a lion’s den where opposition ultimately destroys bills or amends them to fit the democratic institutional framework. In the case of the head of the executive, however, the situation is much more delicate: the masses may lack the wisdom to determine which candidate is most fit to be their president, due to the persuasive nature of political campaigns and their inexperience or misunderstanding of political processes

Similarly, the same people can elect foolish congressmen and congresswomen who, if given the right, would vote for a like-minded head of state, who might reflect their views and never veto any laws. The Founding Fathers thought this process thoroughly and they gracefully fixed the issue by making the decision of state electors completely autonomous from the actual turnout. To put it plainly, the electors can absolutely ignore the way the people from their home state have voted and simply choose whichever candidate they consider fit to become president. Therefore, the system is aristocratic and undemocratic, but is not by any means “rigged”. It is adjusted to reflect the popular vote for the legislative, and the will of an intellectual elite for the executive.

It might be true that there is no precedent in terms of completely turning the result around, but there are many instances when state electors have decided to ignore the will of the constituents and vote according to their own judgement. The 2016 elections have truly been different in the sense that the US citizens are facing a very severe case of opinion polarization, and it might be possible that the millions of people who signed petitions to their state electors provide the right kind of persuasion and pressure to bring a change. A New York Times article written by Christopher Suprun, a conservative elector from Dallas, uses Hamilton’s Federalist no. 68 to legitimize his decision to not cast his vote for Donald Trump. Despite the will of his Texans, Mr. Suprun makes it clear that his sole purpose is that of defending the Constitution and the future he envisions for his children, as he considers that securing a better future according to his vision is much more important than political party allegiance.

Ultimately, there might be plenty of state electors who feel that defying the popular vote is the wise decision to make. These individuals might be selected according to their party allegiance, but the responsibility that the Constitution vests in them is far superior to any moral duty a person can have to an organization. The vote is not just a confirmation of faithfulness, but a statement regarding the vision for America’s future. And while the difference seems too big for a surprising event to take place, we should keep the faith in the political framework of The Founding Fathers. After all, it worked for 229 years with minimal revisions and interventions.

The Electoral College will cast its votes on December 19th, the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December. And while the result seems very unlikely to be turned around, it takes 74 electors to change the situation and make Hillary Clinton the 45th president of the United States. It wasn’t the distribution of the votes that designated the US president on November 8th, as the outcome is irrelevant until the meeting of the electors. Maybe that it’s time to put our trust in their wisdom and stop questioning the brilliance of the Founding Fathers. Their political thought is known to demonstrate its relevance time and time again, and even the harshest critics can admire such a strong constitutional framework.









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