An institution created generations before any of us were born in a nation entirely unlike our own naturally puzzles and frustrates us. Set against our highest cultural and political ideal, that of democracy, our way of choosing the president seems fatally flawed.
It also provokes frequent calls for its abolition, especially in times of political crisis like this one. But efforts to abolish the Electoral College have always failed, either in Congress or in the states. The last constitutional amendment that sought to abolish the college, that of the late 1960s, passed Congress but failed to be ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the states. Why is that?
The American people wisely respect their Constitution, recognizing the wisdom of the founders' tendency to err, if at all, on the side of caution. Critics say that those men, James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" premier among them, feared democracy — decisions affecting the public good arrived at through the vote of average men. More accurately, they feared impulse and impetuosity, and the prospect of voter manipulation. The Electoral College provided stability to their daring republican experiment.
More than 200 years later, there's still something useful, perhaps even attractive, in having an institution whose members can deliberately and calmly assess the outcome of an election and judge its impact upon the public weal.
More important, the existence of the Electoral College creates some important "requirements" for presidential candidates. As we have just seen, it forces them to attend to the voters in small states. It leads them to campaign everywhere, not just through television, but in person. To be sure, the states with the largest number of electoral votes — California, New York, Texas and, yes, Florida — sometimes get the lion's share of attention, but not this year. Battleground states, many of them small like Iowa and Oregon, received more attention just for having an electorate that had not made up its mind.
Were elections decided by popular vote alone, candidates would be inclined to concentrate their efforts in the most populous states and cities. Voters in rural areas could forget the candidates' concern with farm issues. States with small populations such as Rhode Island or Delaware would disappear into their larger neighbors during presidential campaigns, and distant places such as Hawaii and Alaska could forget about ever seeing presidential campaigners.
Then there are times like these when the popular and electoral votes roughly coincide in their closeness, each being proportional to the other. We should not forget that this very rarely happens. Usually the winner gains a decisive number of electoral votes even when the popular vote is close. This normal pattern has solidified the president-elect's victory and bestowed a constitutionally-mandated authority.
Those who would have the Electoral College abolished like to point to its uniqueness, as if this one facet of the many aspects of American distinctiveness is a Bad Thing. But when was uniqueness a disqualification for American pride? And, anyway, since we have used this constitutional institution with little ill effect for more than 200 years, the burden of proof as to the happy results of its abolition must fall upon those who would abolish it. And, while they speak only of the benefits of its end, how can they know what unfortunate consequences might also follow its repeal?
James M. Banner, Jr. a historian in Washington, D.C., was co-founder of the History News Service. He is most recently the editor of A Century of American Historiography (2009).