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October 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 30

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The Electoral College and the United States Constitution


by John Hendrickson



The Electoral College is one of the least-understood elements of the United States Constitution. For many Americans it is a mystery, and it is often viewed as antidemocratic and archaic. This is especially true in recent years when the Electoral College has come under fire, and with the approaching 2016 presidential election calls to reform or abolish the Electoral College will once again become more prevalent in political discourse. 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. The Founding Fathers were students of history and political philosophy and understood the dangers of democracy. Therefore, in deciding how to elect the executive, the Framers designed perhaps one of the most inventive and clever designs — the Electoral College.


Rejecting the direct popular election of the President, the Framers of the Constitution looked to a more improved way to select a President by ensuring the protection of the states and providing every citizen with an equal vote. Gary L. Gregg, II, a political scientist and editor of Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College, wrote:


They [Framers] were convinced it would not be conducive to our common good to confine the political system to a simple and single formula of direct democracy. Rather, they established a complex system anchored to the more solid and varied foundations of a federative republic. As James Madison explained so clearly in Federalist 39, our Constitution is like a table with one leg upon the national community of individuals, a second upon the states directly as vital political entities, and yet a third upon a compound bond between the two.[1]


Gregg also argues that the design of the Electoral College reflects the greater role states played during the formation of the Constitution, which provides further evidence of the Founders’ commitment to federalism:


The Constitution itself was ratified by the votes of the states as sovereign states, not by a national referendum. Indeed, the ratification process was so constructed as to forbid any majority of states from binding the minority who did not freely choose to enter the new compact. Representation in the lower house of Congress was to be distributed according to population on a roughly one-man, one-vote proportional basis. But in the Senate, the states would exist as equal political entities, no matter their size in geography or population. The central government would act with power to compel individuals directly, but the states were to retain considerable authority over most functions of government, which adds another federal aspect for balance.[2]


The states would have a key role in the election of the President via the Electoral College. Perhaps the Electoral College and federalism are two of the most misunderstood components of American government today, partly because both are being undermined by the growth of big government and progressive democracy. Although the Electoral College is unfairly attacked by being criticized as being both “undemocratic” and “out of date,” the process is actually fairer than if the Constitution had called for a direct election of the President.


Perhaps one common mistake which leads many to dismiss the Electoral College is the fact that the term “democracy” is overly used in our political vocabulary. Most Americans refer to the United States as a democracy, but the Founding Fathers rejected democracy in favor of a republican form of government based on a written Constitution. The Founding Fathers had a pessimistic view of human nature. Based on Western Civilization many of the Founding Fathers understood the danger of democracy.


In a republic, which is the basis of our political system, “sovereign power rests in the people as a whole but is exercised by representatives chosen by a popular vote.”[3] As Gary L. Gregg, II, wrote:


The Founders were republicans. They were dedicated to a political system that would be based on ‘the consent of the governed’ and that would be represented in form and function. The men that held the power to make decisions for society would be representatives of the people that were somehow accountable to them and would not be likely to threaten their liberties or those of their freely chosen state and local governments.[4]


Perhaps it is best to close by considering the thoughts of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who even as a liberal, understood the importance of the Electoral College. Moynihan argued that abolishing the Electoral College would be “the most radical transformation in our political system.”[5] “We have a republic. It has endured. We trifle with its arrangement at a risk not only to the future of that republic, but, most assuredly, to the reputation of this generation of political men and women,” stated Moynihan.[6]




[1] Gary L. Gregg, II, “The Origins and Meaning of the Electoral College,” in Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College, edited by Gary L. Gregg, II, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2001, pp. 20-21.
[2] Ibid., p. 21.
[3] James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana, 2000, p. 253.
[4] Gary L. Gregg II, p. 13.
[5] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Electoral College and the Uniqueness of America,” in Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College, edited by Gary L. Gregg II, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2001, p. 88.
[6] Ibid., p. 100.


Public Interest Institute’s POLICY STUDY, The Electoral College: Explaining a Constitutional Mystery and Defending American Constitutionalism, can be viewed at ps-15-8.html.

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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