The controversy surrounding this year's presidential election has led to calls to abandon the Constitution's Article II provisions for the electoral college to select presidents. Despite the fact the system has served us well for over 200 years, many Americans now call for the abandonment of the electoral college in favor of electing presidents by popular vote. Before we abandon the electoral college, let's consider the function it performs.
California, Ohio, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan can boast a combined population of 137 million. That's slightly more than half of our 272 million population. It's therefore conceivable that just nine states could determine the presidency in a popular vote. The electoral college system gives states with small populations a measure of protection against domination by states with large populations. That's because the nine high population states have a total of 243 electoral college votes but 270 are needed to win the presidency.
Compare Wyoming to California. California's population is over 33 million while Wyoming's is 480,000. Thus, California has 69 times more people than Wyoming. California has 54 electoral college votes (since it has 52 congressmen and 2 senators) while Wyoming has 3 votes. In terms of electoral college votes, California has only 18 times as many votes as Wyoming. The electoral college forces presidential candidates to appeal to voters in states with small populations. The Constitution's Framers feared tyranny of the majority. That's why there's an electoral college, plus, even though California's population is 69 times that of Wyoming's, both states have two senators.
Despite public consensus, there's nothing inherently just or fair about majority rule. In fact, one of the primary dangers of majority rule is that is confers an aura of legitimacy and respectability on acts that would otherwise be deemed tyrannical. Ask yourself what day to day decisions would you like to be decided by majority rule? What about where you live, for whom you work, what kind of car you drive, what clothing you wear, what woman you marry? You say, "Williams, those decisions are nobody else's business but mine. What's more those are issues that don't belong in the political arena anyway!" You're right. Plus, we'd all agree that it would be nothing short of tyranny if where you could live and who you could marry was decided by majority rule.
What if the decision whether to enslave a group of people were made through a popular vote instead of a dictatorship? Wouldn't you say that it was tyranny nonetheless? Instead of enslave, we could easily substitute the words rape, murder, robbery and torture and reach the same conclusion. Those examples are extreme and unlikely in the U.S. but the principle is just as applicable on questions like: should a popular vote decide how much of my weekly salary is set aside for retirement, or how much is set aside for housing, clothing, food and entertainment? If a popular vote decided these questions, there's still tyranny but of a lessor degree.
Americans should read the wise words of James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 10. There's no clearer statement that the Framers fashioned a republic and not a pure democracy. Our Constitution set limits on not only the power of the three branches of the federal government, it also set limits on the arbitrary will of the people that might be expressed through a majority vote. Madison said, "[M]easures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." And he's right.
Walter E. Williams
November 15, 2000
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