Electoral Relic? Peculiar Institution?

17 October 2004

I was somewhat dismayed to find that a lengthy article in the Globe about prospects for the demise of the Electoral College did not bother to include, among quotes from its opponents and supporters (mostly from opponents) and analyses of political implications and motivations, even a mention of the institution’s original purpose. If we are to debate whether the Electoral College should remain or be abolished, should we not at least remind ourselves of why it exists in the first place?

The Electoral College is a practical, if flawed, embodiment of the original — and fundamental — presumption underlying American government: that the federal government is the creation of and partner to the state governments, with its authority delegated to it by the governments of the various states to further their common interests. The term “States’ Rights” is, in modern politics, derided as a right wing shibboleth, a euphemism for an ugly cultural recidivism, and the Electoral College is dismissed with the same rhetorical insult. In our modern pursuit of a more perfect “government of the people” we forget that the State was the original and primary American political unit; that governments of the states themselves were the original governments “of the people” — relatively small and close to their citizens geographically and culturally — and that the federal government was, rather, a government of the states.

We all learned some time during our schooling about the three independent branches of the federal government, and about how they form a system of “checks and balances” to minimize the potential for abuses of power. What we forget — or perhaps most of us never learned — is that the original and primary “check and balance” on the power of the federal government was the underlying division of sovereignty between the federal and state governments. Some things, things that affected us truly as a nation, were the province of the federal government; everything else was the province of the state governments, and the federal government was to have no authority over them.

The Electoral College was, along with the structure of the Congress, intended to reinforce that separation of sovereignty, and as with the structure of the Congress it was a grand compromise. It made the choice of our Chief Executive a matter for the states to decide; but the states were to be guided in that choice by a popular election among their own citizens. Thus the selection of the President was a dual responsibility of the individual citizens and of the state governments which represented them.

The structure of the Congress has a similar dichotomy: the House, apportioned according to population, represents the citizens themselves; the Senate, apportioned according to the political boundaries of the states, represents the states as political units. A populist reform of the early twentieth century undermined that dichotomy by requiring that Senators be popularly elected rather than appointed by the state legislatures; and Alan Keyes, in his last-minute Senate run in Illinois, made brief headlines last month with his advocacy for restoring the original scheme as a way of reinforcing the place of the states themselves in the federal system. However, the derision and alarm with which his comments were received makes it unlikely that will happen, and the Electoral College remains the last crude bastion of that original ideal.

It may make sense, at this stage of our political development as a nation, to abolish the Electoral College — or it may not. But, if we are to make that choice, we should do so fully aware of the implications for separation of sovereignty and of what that means for our political institutions beyond simply who will be the President. To publish an article nominally about that choice without so much as a mention of those considerations does us all a disservice.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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