Why the electoral college matters

The US electoral college is a form of filter on broad popular verdicts that deserves some attention (and updating) today


The electoral college has been dismissed as an instrument for maintaining elite control but one can’t ignore the sense in the public rationalization of the process. Photo: AFP
The electoral college has been dismissed as an instrument for maintaining elite control but one can’t ignore the sense in the public rationalization of the process. Photo: AFP

Donald Trump is not yet president-elect of the US. He still has to win 270 votes in the electoral college on 19 December, and, failing that, a vote in the House of Representatives. In most years, this constitutionally defined process is a non-event. The electors, a group of people nominated (for the most part) by state party chapters and selected based on state-level formulae for converting popular vote to seats in the college, meet, fill out the forms, and send their votes to Congress. Congress counts a few weeks later, and most of the time the results are exactly as predicted by election-night calculations. But it does not have to work out this way.

Some electors are constrained by state law or pledges to the party, but there is no constitutional provision or federal law backing these up. According to the US National Archives, no elector has ever actually been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged. There is a Plan B: state delegations to the House of Representatives choose the president from among the top three recipients of electoral votes if no one candidate gets the 270 votes.

The US electoral college is back in the headlines. Grass-roots campaigns, empowered and amplified by social media, have emerged across the US to ask the electors to prevent an “unfit” and “inexperienced” candidate (to borrow the Change.org petition’s more demure critiques) from becoming president. Newspapers around the world are reporting on the kerfuffle as just one more chapter in what was a bizarre election to begin with.

But the coverage misses the important point. This is not meant to be a second opportunity for introspection, nor is the electoral college the institutional equivalent of the human appendix. It is a form of filter on broad popular verdicts that deserves some attention (and updating) today.

America’s electors are being asked to participate in a constitutionally defined process that was laid out in a time when institutional designers still thought individuals might just be capable of analysing information, deliberating, and acting independently in the public interest. The college has been dismissed as an instrument for maintaining elite control (including protection for slavery) but it would be overly cynical and paranoid to completely ignore the sense in the public rationalization of the process. The idea of slowing down, looking at the record, and having a discussion does not seem out of line given the spin that has been deployed, the echo chambers of social media, and the widely recognized arrival of post-truth politics.

Federalist Paper 68, a letter from Alexander Hamilton to the people of the State of New York, lays out the logic. Including the will of the people was design criteria number one—“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice [of President].” Design criteria number two was that the selection of such an important and powerful individual should also take into account “qualities adapted to the station” and other information that might not be readily available to or digested by the broader and probably busier masses. The selection of electors for a temporary and specific purpose rather than from a standing body was meant to keep them close to the will of the people, while the fact of the electoral college was meant to ensure that selection would be done by people who “possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations” and are acting “under circumstances favourable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

Suspend quick and politically correct judgement and cries of paternalism, and look at the content. These people were actually expected to do their homework, discuss it with others, and think about interests beyond their own. Yes, they were assumed to be men, but that was more of a sign of the times than a specific statement about gender. The idea of such a reasonable selection process sounds quaint today, but was somehow a plausible enough idea then that it made it into the US Constitution.

The idea of information-based, public-minded, deliberation as an institutional building block turned out to be naïve, even within its own time. Political parties, charged with nominating the slate of electors, (unsurprisingly) found it convenient to appoint loyalists.

Hamilton and James Madison (the two men credited/blamed for the electoral college) were horrified and pushed for a constitutional amendment to keep selection of electors at the district rather than the state level so that there would be a shot at getting independent-minded people. It didn’t succeed.

The only change to the college was in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804, which effectively accepted the reality of party control over electors and altered a voting convention that would have kept leading to the House of Representatives having to choose which member of the party’s ticket got to be president, and which, vice-president.

But none of this means that the college or the general idea of such filters on the popular vote should be completely dismissed. These kinds of institutionalized spaces for reason, deliberation, and comprehensive consideration of evidence are all the more needed today as mechanisms for rising above the floods and echo chambers, and for allowing our societies to confidently tackle choices that do require close attention to evidence to even determine the social and distributional consequences at stake.

Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research & Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.

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