November 10, 2000


Commentary

Electoral College is worth preserving

Founders created a constitutional republic, not a pure democracy

By John Samples, Ph.D

Critics have long derided the Electoral College as a fusty relic of a bygone era, an unnecessary institution that one day might undermine democracy by electing a minority president. That day has arrived, assuming Gov. Bush wins the Florida recount as now seems likely.

The wording of our basic law is clear: The winner in the Electoral College takes office as president. But what of the spirit of our institutions? Are we not a democracy that honors the will of the people? The very question indicates a misunderstanding of our Constitution.

James Madison's Federalist No. 10 makes clear that the Founders fashioned a republic, not a pure democracy. To be sure, they knew that the consent of the governed was the ultimate basis of government, but the Founders denied that such consent could be reduced to simple majority or plurality rule. In fact, nothing could be more alien to the spirit of American constitutionalism than equating democracy will the direct, unrefined will of the people.

Our constitution puts limits on any unchecked power, including the arbitrary will of the people. Power at the national level is divided among the three branches, each reflecting a different constituency. Power is divided yet again between the national government and the states. Madison noted that these twofold divisions-the separation of powers and federalism-provided a `double security' for the rights of the people.

But isn't the principle of one person, one vote essential to our form of government? The Founders' handiwork says otherwise. Neither the Senate, nor the Supreme Court, nor the president is elected on the basis of one person, one vote. That's why Montana, with 883,000 residents, gets the same number of Senators as California, with 33 million people. Consistency requires that if we abolish the Electoral College, we rid ourselves of the Senate as well.

The filtering of the popular will through the Electoral College is an affirmation, rather than a betrayal, of the American republic. Doing away with the Electoral College would breach our fidelity to the spirit of the Constitution, a document expressly written to thwart the excesses of majoritarianism.

If the Founders had wished to create a pure democracy, they would have done so. Those who now wish to do away with the Electoral College are welcome to try to amend the Constitution, but if they succeed, they will be taking America further away from its roots as a constitutional republic."

Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute

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