Tag Archives: Federalism

The Genius of the Electoral College

The Constitution is clear in its appointment of an Electoral College to serve after each Presidential Election for the sole purpose of choosing, if possible, the President and Vice-President of the United States. There is no less clarity in definition of the operation of this Electoral College, or the handling of their function if they should be unable to determine the question to which their hands are set. There remains great confusion and even frustration with the Electoral College after every Presidential Election, for one reason or another. This article will attempt to clarify some of the misunderstandings, and possibly to answer some of the questions, that occur every quadrennium in the United States.

Without a doubt the best place to begin looking for answers is in the words of the United States Constitution, particularly in one Article and one Amendment that replaces some of the original language of the Article. Accordingly, that is where we will begin.

Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector. (U.S. Constitution, art. 2, sec. 1, cl. 2.)

The Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States. (U.S. Constitution, art. 2, sec. 1, cl. 3.)

The Electors shall meet in their respective States and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same State with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; – The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each State having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the States, and a majority of all the States shall be necessary to a choice. (U.S. Constitution, amend. 12, sec. 1)

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such numbers be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States. (U.S. Constitution, amend. 12, sec. 3)

In order to gain a thorough understanding of the purpose, composition, and importance of the Electoral College as defined and required by the Constitution, we must understand that the Articles of Confederation adopted in 1781 provided for no “president of the United States”. This omission of an executive branch, and of a judicial branch, and of any means of defraying the expenses of government, was among the chief reasons that soon after the Articles were adopted, they came to be seen as ineffective for the governance of a free people. With all federal power, such as it was, housed in a single entity, the Congress, there was entirely too much likelihood that an oligarchy would arise from within the Congress or by action of conspirators who had gained control of Congress, and the democratic experiment would certainly fail. The Electoral College design overcomes every possible danger envisioned by the Framers in the vital area of selecting a Chief Executive for the “more perfect Union” they envisioned.

It is also crucial to understand the importance the Framers placed upon limited and representative government, separation of powers, and a guaranteed system of checks and balances toward the end of ensuring the endurance of the young American Republic. The very ideas themselves balance each the others, for when any one part of the government is limited in its relation to the others, the others are thereby strengthened relative to the weakened member, necessitating that the powers of government be separated by the firm and unbreachable walls of the Constitution, and furthermore that even within the different spheres of governments, including federal branches, States in relation to the federal government, and States in relation to each other, there be restraints upon overwhelming power, lest a faction, or a combination of them, gain an upper hand and dilute or quench the others in their proper spheres of influence.

The Framers had these specific objects in mind when they devised the Electoral College. In Federalist #68, Alexander Hamilton explained that, while the people’s vote would ultimately determine the outcome of the Presidential Elections, it could not be left to a plebiscite for the reason that the people, being of many temperaments, levels of moral development and education, and other distinctions, were not to be tempted by base greed in the matter of choosing the Chief Executive. Rather, the people would choose electors, persons who had proved that they were above crude motivations for the sake of power or riches, and the electors so chosen by the people would cast the votes to select the President and Vice-President. Further, “no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector” (U.S. Constitution, art. 2, sec. 2, cl. 2), thereby excluding the basest ambitions of the electors themselves.

Notice that, even with these guards in place in the matter of choosing a President and Vice-President, the Constitution makes it perfectly clear that it is completely within the purview and power of the States, under the control of their respective Legislatures, to appoint the electors who will be sent to the Electoral College. And then, so as to punctuate this separation of powers, the Constitution again makes it perfectly clear that these electors, and the Electoral College derivatively, must meet within their respective States, to further deny any power or force from outside each State, for the purpose of casting their votes for the offices they will determine. They may not meet in combinations of States, either regional or national, but must meet in their respective States. It is a perfect and sublime example of the separation of powers in a federal system of representative government. The Congress may only decree three matters, and those are the “time of choosing the electors”, “the day on which they shall give their votes”, and that this must occur on the same day uniformly throughout the United States. Again, these provisions are exemplary of true federalism in action within a representative and republican framework.

We must notice, and give heed to, the totality of the language in the Constitution, which by means of its own provisions includes its Amendments, to this vitally important matter of ensuring the continuity of civil government. It was not without accident that these words were chosen, for these words follow upon long and sober reflection, and upon the decisions of the several States in the ratification of this Supreme Law of the Land. Is there not more of restriction upon the unbridled power of a federal government, and upon the powers of the States, and upon the powers of the federal and State Legislatures, and upon the powers of elected and appointed officials, and finally upon the powers inherent to the people themselves, than there is upon the Rule of Law itself? The Framers most certainly understood that mankind were then, and are now, predisposed to take the easier course, the baser course, than to choose to elevate themselves to a higher course, and they codified that understanding into our Constitution. More particularly, the States chose, through their several devices of governance, to ratify that Constitution in its entirety. In so doing, they chose the Electoral College system for determining the person who would be, or could become, Chief Executive.

We, who live in this 21st Century, are yet bound by this legal document, which many would disparage simply because it is “legal”; but even so, we are held to it. Those Framers, and the States which ratified this Constitution, are in the position known as “federal head” to all of those who live today. Their actions represent us. Their decisions affect us. We are held to the decisions taken in 1787, until such time as we, or a later generation of Americans, choose to change the effects of those actions and decisions.