The first point that must be addressed is this: Contrary to popular opinion, the media coverage of elections and the words of politicians, The United States of America is not a democracy. It is a democratic republic. It was formed by thirteen sovereign entities we now call states. Each of those would participate in an overall federal government by sending three types of delegates to the capitol:
- Senators — Each sovereign entity is allowed two agents here. Originally, these were not elected positions but rather appointed positions (appointments were made by state legislatures). They became elected positions in 1913 when the 17th Amendment was ratified
- Representatives — In the beginning, the House of Representatives was the chamber where the citizens of each individual state were elected by the direct vote of the people.
- Presidential Electors — Every 4 years, each of the autonomous states decides on a group of people to declare their choice for President (POTUS). The method of choosing those electors is reserved for each member government (each state). Each gets a number equal to the total number of Senators and Representatives.
The third group is the focus of the article.
What is the Electoral College?
What it’s not, is a set of buildings dedicated to teaching a group of students. In this case, this is the part of the definition used:
“…an organized association of persons having certain powers and rights, and performing certain duties or engaged in a particular pursuit.”
When Presidential election time comes around every fourth November, the people gather within each state (and the District of Columbia) and cast ballots for the person they want to vote into office. So, essentially, there are 51 general elections, not just 1.
Depending on who wins any individual state, a slate of Electors is chosen who are pledged to communicate the majority’s wishes to the Congress, where the votes are tallied. On occasion, for reasons of their own, someone may repudiate that promise and cast their vote for a different candidate. The person is known as a Faithless Elector. Whoever gets the majority of votes (in 2020 that is 270) becomes President. In the extremely rare event nobody gets that number, the House of Representatives makes the decision.
What Were They Thinking???
Many people wonder why the Founding Fathers saddled us with this system. Context is always important, so it’s vital to understand their mindset. They had just declared their independence from Great Britain and were literally fighting for their lives. The excesses of King George III were the trigger for the revolt, and the founders were terrified of creating an overbearing government like the one they had just shed.
The Electoral College was a compromise between two opposing views. One side wanted straight popular vote across state lines, the other wanted the Congress to choose one from among their number.
James Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson a part of which has since been paraphrased to mean the “tyranny of the majority.” His concern was that the federal government would become completely beholden to the whims of the masses and diminish the independence of each state to run itself as it saw fit.
The other faction wanted the legislature to determine who would be Chief Executive of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his disdain for the popular vote, a document known as the Virginia Plan (a.k.a the Big-State Plan) was penned by Madison. While this would prevent the federal government from gaining ascendancy over state-rule, it put the less populous ones firmly in a second-class tier.
And so, the Electoral College was born. Is it easy to understand? No. Especially because people are mistaught from a young age that America is a “democracy.” However, as said in a quote attributed to Henry Clay (and Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame) “a good compromise leaves no one happy.”
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