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Selecting the Next President: Majority Rule and the Electoral College

George C. Edwards III

Can the intentions of the framers justify the violation of majority rule in the twenty-first century? Most of the motivations behind the creation of the electoral college are simply irrelevant today and can be easily dismissed. Legislative election is not an option, there is little danger that the president will be too powerful if directly elected, voters have extraordinary access to information on the candidates, there is no justification at all for either electors or state legislatures to exercise discretion in selecting the president, defending the interests of slavery is unthinkable, and the short-term pressures have long dissipated. Those delegates who wanted electors to exercise independent judgment or be selected by state legislatures would soon be disappointed. There is no support—and no justification—today for either option.

In addition, the broad thrust of constitutional revision over the past two centuries has been in the direction of democratization and majority rule. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in determining voter eligibility. The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) ensured women the right to vote. The Twenty-Third Amendment (1961) accorded the residents of Washington, DC, the right to vote in presidential elections. Three years later, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibited poll taxes (which discriminated against the poor). Finally, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (1971) lowered the voter eligibility age to eighteen.

Whether it is necessary to employ the electoral college to protect the interests of small states is our next focus. Clearly, however, it is virtually impossible to find anyone who will defend the selection of the president by the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote. Even the most ardent supporters of the electoral college ignore this most blatant violation of democratic principles. It is important to understand that the founders did not expect the states to remain with such unequal populations. Madison, for example, felt that the problem of different percentages of qualified voters in northern and southern states would decrease under the “Republican laws” in the southern states and the more rapid increase in their population. They did not foresee the combination of a large number of new states and the low populations of many of those states. Research by the political scientist Bartholomew Sparrow shows that the Louisiana Purchase and its promotion of yet further continental expansion soon altered the framers’ expectations.

The defense of the electoral college system’s violation of political equality, then, must rest on arguments about how its current operation provides other fundamental benefits, such as protecting federalism or the two-party system. Or the argument can be made that any alternative proposed to the electoral college will have serious defects that outweigh the claimed advantages of change.

From Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America by George C. Edwards III. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and holds the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies. A Distinguished Fellow at Oxford, he has edited Presidential Studies Quarterly since 1998.

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