US/Electoral College

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The United States Electoral College (EC) is the method by which individual votes for US President are aggregated into a final decision.

Although similar systems have been used in other countries, the United States is the only country currently (2011) using this system for electing a chief executive.

how it works

Each state is allocated a number of "electoral votes", based on recent census data. Each state holds an election for President, and the winner of the state election receives all of the state's electoral votes.


The Electoral College is mandated by the US Constitution; it was originally argued for by James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 10.


The arguments in support of the EC seem to boil down to these pointsht1:

  1. Tradition
  2. Gives the small states more power
  3. The president should be the president of the states, not the people
  4. A small group of electors can better decide who the president should be than the large, uninformed voters


There have been several initiatives to do away with or otherwise disable the EC; the most recent -- and the one which seems most likely to succeed, since it requires no approval at the federal level -- is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which states who join the compact agree that once the Compact is joined by enough states to constitute a majority of the Electoral vote, every state in the compact will award its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, instead of that state's popular vote.

Although the EC will still exist and be the official body deciding the elections, it will be essentially bypassed by the collective action of its members.


Will Hively presents Madison's argument this way:

James Madison, chief architect of our nation's electoral college, wanted to protect each citizen against the most insidious tyranny that arises in democracies: the massed power of fellow citizens banded together in a dominant bloc. As Madison explained in The Federalist Papers (Number X), "a well-constructed Union" must, above all else, "break and control the violence of faction," especially "the superior force of an . . . overbearing majority." In any democracy, a majority's power threatens minorities. It threatens their rights, their property, and sometimes their lives.

It's clear that Madison was against direct democracy, but his argument as presented doesn't really make sense. How does the Electoral College (or representative democracy in general) make factionalism any less likely?

If nothing else, recent election results have shown that Madison's stated goals -- electing the most "fit characters", allowing clear heads to prevail, preventing self-interest from overriding the common good, preventing candidates from fooling the voters through rhetoric, preventing money from ruling the election, and preventing "frivolous claims" (i.e. frivolous arguments, e.g. the argument over Obama's birthplace) from drawing attention away from serious issues -- have all utterly failed.

The best interpretation I can put on Madison's argument (as given in Federalist #10) is that he wanted decisions to be made by communities -- groups of people who were able to function together and self-police (weeding out what we would now call "trolls", not to mention sociopaths and others not interested in the common good) -- whose sanely-made opinions would then be aggregated to make the final, national choice. Translated into a modern context, this would be an argument for government by social network, not geography -- since these days, people in the same neighborhood (much less the same state) may not even know each other well enough to know who is sincere and who is trolling.






ht1. credit to Colin Grey for research