No sooner had America fluttered into the political twilight zone to which last Tuesday’s election delivered it, that the sages who miscalled the Florida vote began to jabber about how we’ve just got to abolish the Electoral College. By the end of the week, the demand for transforming the country into one big happy land of direct democracy seemed to be taking root, with Senator-Elect Hillary Clinton herself calling for abolition. But however attractive the idea might seem, it involves a bit more than altering the way we elect presidents. It needs to be noted in the first place that abolishing the Electoral College is probably not politically possible, if only because doing so would require approval of a constitutional amendment by a number of small states that would thereby effectively disfranchise themselves in presidential elections. It’s quite true that the Electoral College gives small states –not only conservative ones, like most of those in the West that Republicans tend to win, but also several New England states the Democrats usually carry — far more power than if the popular vote determined winners.
Yet it’s also true that in the absence of the Electoral College, the left would benefit the most. Candidates would contend for the most popular votes and concentrate on the more leftish urbanized areas where most voters live. Small towns and rural areas rather than cities, white voters rather than nonwhites, and middle income rather than low-income people would tend to be ignored. That, of course, is why champions of the left, like Senator Hillary and her fan club in the national press corps, want the Electoral College to go.
But even if abolishing it were possible and desirable, Americans ought to think through what the college is, why it’s there, and what abolishing it would mean, not only for practical politics but also for theoretical reasons.
The pundits last week were coaxing their hired experts to say that the Framers adopted the Electoral College because they distrusted the common man and wanted to control the results of letting him vote at all. That’s only partly true, though there’s nothing wrong or outdated about it. Our whole constitutional system is in fact a means of controlling the power of each part of society and government by the power of others.
A bigger reason for the creation of the Electoral College is that in the eye of the U.S. Constitution and the men who created it, there is no such thing as “the American people” as a whole. What there is are the people of the states that created the Constitution.
It follows that “the American people” do not elect and never have elected anyone. The peoples of the states choose electors, who then choose the president. The purpose of the Electoral College is not to control American voters, but to control the federal government.
The system controls the federal government by recognizing and protecting the power of the states. Rather than creating one big union in which a bare majority would elect the president directly and thereby give him an excuse to claim that he is the embodiment of the general will, the Constitution sought, through the Electoral College, to perpetuate the power of intermediary institutions like the states as checks on presidential and federal power.
Abolishing the Electoral College even today would go far to strip the states of one of their vital constitutional functions. Abolition would imply, in effect, if not in principle, that the states no longer exist, except as administrative units. The people of the states would cease to choose the electors who choose the president; instead, one big people, no longer defined by and contained within the states, would pick der Fuhrer — the leader.
Abolishing the Electoral College, then, would go far to transform the United States from a federal republic, formed by the union of states, to a unitary state created by the will of a single people and represented in a single man. The federal government would become the expression of that will, and any limitation of government would be a limitation of the people’s will. The range of governmental power would then be virtually infinite.
That, of course, is more or less what the American Civil War tried to turn the United States into. It didn’t quite do it, simply because the forms of the old Constitution, including states, managed to survive. But if the fans of expanded federal power could get rid of the Electoral College, they would go far in getting rid of the states that compose and constrain the union. That’s yet another reason Senator Hillary and her pals want to get rid of the college — and why those who want to retain some semblance of the old republic should want to keep it.