The election of Donald Trump was an unexpected upset. Every time there is an upset election we hear calls for the abolition of the Electoral College that chooses the President.
That is especially true when the majority of voters nationally vote for the candidate who lost. But there are very good reasons we do not elect the President by a majority of the popular vote nationally.
Understanding Federalism and the Electoral College
In the U.S. system of constitutional federalism, size counts, and size is determined by population rather than geography. Population determines representation, and representation empowers the citizens of the States to protect their rights of national and State citizenship. The number of Congressmen a State has depends on the size of the State’s population.
However, the Constitution balances the power of the States with the most representation with the power of the small States though equal representation in the U.S. Senate. Every State gets two Senators. The Constitution also enables political coalitions among small States in the House of Representatives.
Both small and large States are represented in federal presidential elections that culminate in election of the President by the Electoral College. This ensures that each State participates according to its size and interests, including interests that small States may share in common, or that a particular small State shares with some combination of small or large States.
Not only do the small states get heard, but agricultural states or industrial states can also be sure of a vote, no matter how the size of the population changes.
Puerto Rico and Electoral College
As the 51st State of the Union, Puerto Rico’s voting power in Congress and the Electoral College will be greater than at least 20 other States. About 30 States will have more voting power than Puerto Rico.
This allocation of voting power will put Puerto Rico at the center of the federal political system. As a State near the center of the Constitution’s power sharing process, Puerto Rico can join with the small states or large States to vote for the President or on final passage of federal laws.
In this sense the U.S. Constitution can be understood as a power-sharing agreement between States of the Union. The federation of States was formed to create a “more perfect” power sharing arrangement in which U.S. citizens in each State participate on equal terms.
The rights of national citizenship are exercised through representation on equal terms, based on federal voting rights in Congress and the Electoral College that arise exclusively from State citizenship. Consent to government is given by citizens of large and small States with balanced participation.
State Citizenship Rights Matter Most
All citizens can be sure that based on chosen residence in a State they have as much ability to influence and decide as all other citizens of the other States. The 14th Amendment confirms that all U.S. citizens also are citizens of the State in which they choose to live.
That ensures every citizen has the same freedom to live where they choose and has voting rights under the Constitution. Every citizen then can participate in government by exercising those rights.
This is how and why citizens in every State, large of small, can accept the outcome of the political process even if it is not what they wanted. That includes election of the President by the Electoral College and adoption of laws by Congress.
Constitution Trumps Politics
In the year 2000 George W. Bush was elected President by the Electoral College, even though Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote nationwide. At that time Hillary Clinton called for abolition of the Electoral College and direct popular election of the President by majority vote nationwide.
In 1992 the third party candidacy of Ross Perot prevented either President George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton from getting a majority of the national vote. Based on the results of voting in each of the 50 states, a majority of the Electoral College chose Clinton to be President, even though he garnered a plurality rather than a majority of the popular vote.
If a direct popular majority vote instead of a majority in the Electoral College was required to be President, in 1992 that would have required a runoff between President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The outcome could have been a second term for Bush instead of a first term for Clinton.
History Trumps Politics
The Electoral College was created to ensure the new republic would survive as a federation of states. The fact that the union included slave states at the time does not mean the Electoral College is merely a vestige of slavery.
Rather, the Electoral College is the glue that holds our nation together. Abolish it and it only is a matter of time before the country divides into more than one nation. Most likely it would be three, the east and west coasts, and the middle. Maybe the south would form a fourth.
The best way to understand the Electoral College is that it is comparable to the Congress. There are 538 members (435 like the House of Representatives, 100 like the U.S. Senate, and 3 from the District of Columbia). So it takes 270 to win a majority. The state delegations convene in state capitals to cast votes.
The difference from Congress is that the composition of the state delegations to the Electoral College is based on the results of federal elections for President in each state, rather than the election of Senators by states or representatives for each Congressional district within every state.
The other difference is that the Electoral College delegations convene once every four years for one purpose, which is to elect the President. Then the state delegations of electors go home.
The number of people who vote nationwide for a presidential candidate can be greater than the total number of voters who determine the composition of Electoral College delegations in the 50 states. Thus, the President is not determined by nationwide majority vote, but by the majority of electors in the Electoral College.
Should We Change Presidential Elections?
Why have a representative government instead of direct democracy in one of three co-equal branches of our nation’s constitutional government, but not the others?
We might as well ask why not have the people vote on all laws passed by Congress? If we have majority rule, California, New York and Florida will be happy. Small states not able to influence national law, and citizen of small States will just have to accept the loss of state rights.
What about direct popular election for for the U.S. Supreme Court? Why bother with presidential appointment and Senate confirmation for the high court? If we elect the court that way the interpretation of the Constitution and laws can change every four years, based on what court rulings are popular with voters.
There is a reason small States can align with other small States, large States, or shifting combinations of both, based on the interests of each State.
It is the interest of each State determined by its representatives in the Congress and Electoral College through which the national interest is defined. It is through the exercise of the rights of State citizenship through which the rights of U.S. national citizenship are protected.