Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
In Defense of the Electoral College
July 22, 2011
by Marc LiVecche
Perhaps we can say of the Electoral College what can and has been said about much else in the governing structures of our country: it is worse than everything else except its alternatives. While it has evolved since 1787, the Electoral College nevertheless endures as a supporting structure for our founder’s very particular American expression of democracy. It witnesses both the founder’s principled effort to manage the self-serving proclivities of the human heart and their fidelity to classical and medieval notions of the bound sovereign and a plain distinction between tyrant and king.
The founder’s solution to the danger of tyranny was the sovereignty of law, the separation of powers, and federalism. Crucially, the founders understood that tyranny had multiple manifestations and that the tyrant could be both singular and legion. Concerning the latter, it is federalism in particular which shields the nation from the hazard of a tyrant majority. The Electoral College, as the mechanism for electing our country’s chief magistrate, is a fundamental expression of this federal aim and reveals the principles we pursue when picking our president. One among them is the defanging of majority rule by coupling it with minority consent.
The Electoral College gives minorities more influence than their raw numbers alone would allow. This is because a successful presidential candidate must be a consensus builder clearly perceived as capable of governing all. This means that broad popular support is more critical than merely deep support, but only ultimately. The Electoral College articulates this through a set of defaults: if a candidate receives a substantial majority of the popular vote, then the candidate has almost certainly also won the electoral votes required to become president; however, if the popular vote is close, the Electoral College assures that it is the candidate with the most widely distributed support—demonstrated by winning an absolute majority of electoral votes—who obtains the presidency. When even small minorities in a given state might swing that state to a particular candidate the political voice of all minorities—racial, ethnic, religious, vocational, and economic, as well as special interest groups—is enhanced. Obviously, this also helps to balance the priority of local and regional interests with national ones and to balance the concerns of small states with large states and rural communities with populous metropolitan centers. Minority voices are more likely to both meet their responsibilities and enjoy their rights as citizens when they have faith that their voice matters. The Electoral College provides this assurance by providing unequally weighted votes nationally, by valuing the collective popular choice of individual states more than the choice of the national population as a whole, and by compelling any successful candidate to achieve consensus enough that even the opposing minority can stand in support of their presidency.
Those who favor a national popular vote believe every vote should carry equal weight across the country, desiring a simple tally of somehow self-sovereign individuals to replace the hard won harmony of united states, an anti-federal view which undermines that notion of democracy which is particularly American. One senses that they believe the will of the majority and the will of the people are necessarily the same thing. They are not. The hazard of the will of the majority is found in the old quip defining democracy as two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for lunch. But the will of the people is formed by what can be shared by all the people across their disparate and sometimes conflicting interests. Saint Augustine noted that the best way to get to know a people was to understand the objects of their shared loves. We are a divided nation but, at our best, we share an indivisible longing for liberty and justice for all. For all. Not merely for a majority and their potentially lupine self-interests.
—Marc LiVecche is a PhD student studying theological and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”