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March 2012 Brief: Volume 19, Number 9

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A Republic, Not a Democracy:

A Defense of the Electoral College


by John Hendrickson


The Electoral College is one of the most misunderstood aspects of American government and historically it has come under fire for being “un-democratic.” The most recent attempt to undermine the Electoral College is from The National Popular Vote Movement (NPV). The Electoral College must be preserved, because it not only reflects the traditions of American constitutionalism, but provides the best avenue to elect the President and Vice President.


When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they designed a republican form of government that was based upon a written Constitution that limited the power of the federal government. The Constitution was a document that contained separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. John Samples, Director of Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, wrote:


James Madison’s famous 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 with the direct, unrefined will of the people.[1]


In the Constitution, the Framers came to a compromise over the issue of representation. The Connecticut Compromise solved the problem of representation by providing that the House of Representatives be based upon population (favoring the large states) and the Senate would have equal representation, with each state getting two Senators (favoring the small states). The individual states also have a role to play in our constitutional system through federalism as stated by the 10th Amendment: “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[2]


The Electoral College, which is defined in Article II, Section I of the Constitution, also applies to federalism.[3] “The Electoral College was originally conceived as a compromise between the large and small states…,” noted Tara Ross, author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.[4] “Our Founding Fathers understood that America is a nation of both ‘we the people’ and a federal system of states, so it allows all states, regardless of size, to be players in electing our President,” noted columnist Phyllis Schlafly.[5] Each state has a specific number of electors that are chosen when voters cast their ballot for a particular presidential candidate. The number of electors is determined by the number of Representatives plus the two Senators; Iowa for example has six electoral votes. “America has direct popular election of Presidents, but has it within states,” wrote columnist George F. Will.[6]


NPV’s objective is to change the Electoral College system to be based upon the winner of the national popular vote. The NPV campaign is attempting to get state Legislatures to pass legislation to commit their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. “The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia).”[7] Under the current system most states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which have proportional systems, award the electoral votes based upon a winner-take-all basis. In total, there are 538 electoral votes and a candidate must receive 270 to win the election.


Currently, Legislatures in eight states as well as the District of Columbia have passed legislation to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.[8] This means that 132 electoral votes, or 49 percent of the 270 needed to win, are already delegated to the winner of the national popular vote.[9] Advocates of the NPV, which contains bipartisan support, claim that this approach to electing the President is more “democratic.”


The first argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it works, but more importantly, it is a vital part of our constitutional structure. Electing the President based upon a direct national vote, which the Framers rejected, would undermine the small states. Candidates would only need to campaign in large urban centers; small states, such as Iowa, would be bypassed completely. “The primary effect of America’s federalist presidential election process is to protect the freedom of individuals — particularly those in small states and sparsely populated areas,” argued Ross.[10]


The Electoral College brings “stability and certainty” in presidential elections.[11] Both presidential candidates and political parties must build broad coalitions in order to win elections. For example, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan all built political coalitions that were broad-based. A national popular vote would undermine stability in presidential elections, resulting in undermining the two-party system, confusing and drawn-out ballot recounts, and higher chances of voter fraud.[12] The Electoral College, just as with the United States Senate, provides protection and representation. Iowa and the nation should seriously think about the constitutional implications for supporting a direct popular vote of the President. As John Samples noted, “if the Founders had wished to create a pure democracy, they would have done so.”[13] Preservation of the Electoral College is a vital necessity for our constitutional republic.


[1] John Samples, “In defense of the Electoral College,”, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., November 10, 2000, <> accessed on February 9, 2012.
[2] Amendment 10, United States Constitution, Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
[3] A full definition and more information of the Electoral College can be found at Save Our States: Protecting Federalism and the Electoral College, <> accessed on February 10, 2012.
[4] Tara Ross, “The Electoral College: Enlightened Democracy,” Legal Memorandum, No. 15, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., November 1, 2004, <> accessed on February 9, 2012.
[5] Phyllis Schlafly, “National Popular Vote Is a Bad Idea,” Creators Syndicate, December 6, 2011, <> accessed on February 10, 2012.
[6] George F. Will, “Foreward,” in Tara Ross’s Enlightened Democracy: The Case For the Electoral College, World Ahead Publishing, Los Angeles, California, 2004, p. x.
[7] National Popular Vote, “Explanation of the National Popular Vote Bill,” National Popular Vote, <> accessed on February 10, 2012.
[8] National Popular Vote, <> accessed on February 10, 2012.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ross, “The Electoral College.” p. 1.
[11] Ibid., p. 8.
[12] Ibid., pp. 8-10.
[13] Samples.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.



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