In the end, after hours of deliberation, many written drafts, and seemingly unending changes of mind, the conflicting positions were finally reconciled. The result was the creation of two separate bodies within the Congress: a House of Representatives based upon population (a concession to the large states); a Senate based upon equal two votes for each state (a concession to the small states). It was a compromise balancing size with maintaining the integrity of each unique state.
When the discussion subsequently moved to the question of the President, the same issue of “who gets to decide” arose. It was the “big states / little states” yet again, combined with a broad distrust among the convention’s Delegates as to the capability of the general population to make such a critical choice. (It was already presupposed that such capability could only be entrusted to a select subgroup within white adult males.) To get out of this philosophical bind, the Delegates ultimately returned to the solution that they had used to resolve the representation argument regarding the Congress. That is, voters in each state would elect representatives to a similar body, but one with the sole and temporary charge to elect a president. Representation to that electoral body would be equal to each state’s combined representation to the Congress – i.e. two Senators plus their number of apportioned Representatives – a combination of an equal vote yet weighted by population. Those electors would thereby vote on the people’s behalf for the person they felt to be most qualified for President, with a majority rule. Having fulfilled this singular Charge, the electors would then adjourn and go home, their business completed with no subsequent role to potentially complicate their decision. It was a solution the Founders loved – a compromise, with something for everyone.
And thusly was born the Electoral College. A compromise mechanism for: effecting the delicate balance between the powerful versus the weak; confirming majority rule while protecting the important role of the minority; ensuring that a stampede of the masses does not overwhelm the concerns of the few, while conversely preventing the few from unduly blocking the national will. It is an imperfect system because we are an imperfect, diverse country of competing interests and divergent beliefs that we attempt to accommodate, not ignore or defeat.
Given this objective of balance, over the years the Electoral College has worked pretty well for us overall. It failed to choose a winner in 1800 between Jefferson and Burr, and forced the election into the House of Representatives. It failed in 1876 when disputes in three states over the voting results resulted in Hayes defeating Tilden is spite of Hayes losing both the original Electoral College vote AND the popular vote. In the last sixteen years, we have now had two occurrences of the Electoral College winner losing the national popular vote – “a losing-winner.” These two losing-winner elections have raised voices calling for the end of the Electoral College system in favor of one nationwide direct popular vote – such voices perhaps understandably coming from the losing side of the decision. It is a call with which I could not disagree more.
We need to remind ourselves that we are a federal system of governments. A national government that reflects shared values and principles applicable to all Americans, and able to act on their collective behalf. We are also a collection of individual, dissimilar states with little in common, thereby providing opportunities to do some things differently that reflect local needs and more appropriate solutions. The federal government is our commonality; the state governments are our separateness and individuality. Both are good ideals engaged in an always difficult and evolving dance to jointly serve the citizenry.
The reality is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has very little in common with the State of Texas. As Florida has little in common with Idaho. As California has with South Carolina. Meanwhile, Hawaii sits alone in the Pacific no doubt very happy to have its distance from the mainland. These are differences – sometimes extreme ones – of geography, weather, culture, heritage, immigrant background, population, wealth, education, recreation, and natural wonders. Differences not at all unlike those among the original thirteen states that formed this Union, differences as true today as then. Respecting these differences, not steamrolling over them, is the challenge to the federal government vis-à-vis the states.
Actually, the same arguments over power sharing happen within individual state boundaries, among state, county and local governments. Major population centers frequently claim the “weighted right” of population that risks overwhelming their more scattered, rural neighbors. There is sprawling Atlanta and the whole rest of Georgia. Northern and western New York constantly fight to not be overwhelmed by New York City. Northern California and southern California regularly threaten to secede from each other. In North Carolina, we have the rural and coastal economies of the east, the high-tech Triangle and the high-population areas of the Triad in the center, and the Appalachian heritage of the western mountains. Balancing all of these varied needs, goals and perspectives means exercising due diligence while proceeding cautiously. (Clearly, we in North Carolina are not doing this well at all!)
The President is elected to serve all Americans, as varied as we are. The Electoral College ensures that candidates for that office campaign in most, if not all, of America. S/he is obligated to connect with, and be cognizant of, the vast diversity of this nation s/he seeks to lead. One cannot, and should not, just concentrate on the big population states/centers to win an election. A candidate needs to eat county fair food in Iowa, barnstorm the back roads of New Hampshire, conduct town meetings in New Mexico, and fill stadiums in California. That was made imminently clear in this most recent election when rural/small-town voters demanded to be heard, not ignored.
In this high-tech 21st Century, the Electoral College can seem like an old, unnecessary throwback to an earlier, simpler time. But electorally, we are only slightly different now than in those simpler times. This system was designed from the beginning to remind us of the diverse complexity of our country and its citizenry. We are more than just one aggregate number; we are more than just the loudest voice. Rather, we are many versions of shifting pluralities deeply interconnected to, and dependent upon, each other for our overall well-being. Our political representatives need to understand and navigate among these pluralities to build coalitions for action while also respecting those who stand outside those coalitions. We are all the dairy farmer in Vermont, the factory worker in Michigan, the struggling single parent in Baltimore, the cubicle worker in Silicon Valley, the aging fixed-income grandparent in Oklahoma, the forgotten Native-American on the North Dakota reservation. All of these voices need to be heard and responded to. The value of the Electoral College is not measured by whether our choice wins or loses. Rather, it exists to help ensure that each of our voices matters.
© 2016 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com