Guest Commentary: The Electoral College may be more critical than we all realize

Signing of the United States Constitution. (Painting:  Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856)

Nov. 27, 2020 by Tyler Skaathun

The 2020 election cycle had plenty of twists and turns and many of us still wonder if the race is at its end.

When I talk to Democrats, the answer is an obvious yes but many of Donald Trump’s supporters still claim that there is a path to victory for the President. The situation is made worse when he and his supporters claim that he won or that somehow he’ll stay in power even after new states certify their elections. As I write, the transition was just officially announced but these concerns are still atop of many Americans’ minds.

With Trump refusing to concede, I’ve had plenty of conversations with folks across South Florida who fear that somehow the election will be stolen from President-elect Joe Biden, and we already know that many conservatives feel that the election was conducted unfairly.

The whole fiasco of the President holding out leaves open questions about America’s checks and balances. In middle and high school we were taught that Congress has the power of the purse, the executive performs its namesake and executes the law, and the judicial system interprets the Constitution. But who is responsible if the President just decides that he’s going to stay in the White House?  Maybe this is a job for the Electoral College.

Many Americans have shown disdain for the institution for the simple reason that it may deprive the winner of the popular vote a victory. This causes a lot of confusion.

To briefly explain, a candidate must have the most electoral votes to win. But what is an electoral vote? According to the Constitution, each state gets the number of electors equal to the number of representatives and senators.  So, on Election Day, voters are telling state electors how to vote. Florida provides an example. It has 29 electoral votes, because it has 27 members of the House of Representatives and two Senators.  In order to win the White House, the winner must get the magic number of 270 electoral votes, because 270 is the majority of the 538 electoral votes available.

The system may seem strange when elections could just be determined by the popular vote.

There are many theories why the Founders created this system. One theory is that it was to give southern slave states more power in picking the president. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution is infamous for counting slaves as only three-fifths of a person. This artificially increased the population of slave states and gave them more seats in the House of Representatives and more electoral votes. As repulsive as the reasoning may seem now, some historians have argued that it was a necessary compromise to get the southern slave colonies to join the United States.

(In my view, I find it disgusting but they didn’t invite me to the Constitutional Convention.)

Another possibility was that the Electoral College would protect small states from big states. For example, Wyoming is the smallest state in terms of population, and needs every electoral vote it can get to be relevant in the presidential race. But the Electoral College gives it greater political power.

There are still a lot of problems with this theory. Small numbers of electors still render small states less relevant and big swing states will always be the key to a presidential election.

(Tangentially, many Floridians are asking why this year Florida didn’t get the attention it normally does in an election cycle. My personal theory is that the state was just not that important for the national Democratic strategy. Joe Biden did not need Florida’s electoral votes and there were no Senate seats up for election. He didn’t have to spend the time and resources when he could have gotten the necessary 270 votes elsewhere.)

The existing theories about the logic behind the Electoral College remain unsatisfying, since it doesn’t do what is allegedly supposed to do: protect small states or preserve slavery. Rather, I would argue that the Founders never thought the Electoral College would work the way it has ended up working.

If we look closely at the Constitution, we see that if there is a tie or a failure to get a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representative is supposed to pick the president from the top five winners of the Electoral College.

This seems odd because in modern politics we have never had a candidate not get a majority, or even five viable candidates at the same time. So why is it there unless they thought it would happen? I think that they thought it would happen. The Constitution was created before the two-party system and all those Founders in the same room writing it were possible candidates for president—and many of them tried. They thought there would always be many people trying to be president until the two-party system destroyed the idea. They assumed that Congress would have more power in picking the president than it ended up having.

If five viable candidates were running with strong regional backing, there was the possibility that none would get a majority and the House of Representatives would decide the winner, probably after much debate and a major compromise. In a way, it was a good idea because it forced different factions to work together in the national interest—something we could certainly use now.

Whether this was the Founders’ true intent, the Electoral College had another important function—stopping a would-be king. And to take it into the present day, it could stop a would-be dictator.

In the event of a dictator attempting to take over the country with support from some members of Congress and governors, the Electoral College just might provide the stopping point for the takeover, preventing him from declaring victory.

I fear that in the future we will see presidents who have lost more obviously than Donald Trump making far more drastic attempts to influence electoral outcomes. Perhaps democracy needs a place between the elected official and the people to ensure that no one takes too much power.

For all the talk of “faithless electors” and state legislatures determining the outcome, this year may be the first time that this kind of check is needed. Americans have always assumed that the outgoing president would leave with dignity and grace. That’s not the case this year.

Democracy is hard to maintain. Perhaps the Electoral College has more to do with maintaining it than we thought.

Tyler Skaathun is a veteran campaigner having worked on political campaigns in South Florida as a volunteer all the way up to senior campaign management. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration. Outside of politics he focuses on a variety of volunteer projects to improve our community and promote the common good.

Liberty lives in light

One thought on “Guest Commentary: The Electoral College may be more critical than we all realize

  1. I agree with your reasoning. But I think they were afraid a direct vote would result in a demagogue. A first past the post direct vote election to me is a scary thing.


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