With last Monday’s official meeting of the Electoral College, the 2016 presidential election has finally come to a close. In the popular vote, Hillary Clinton won with a 2.1% margin. In the electoral college, however, Donald Trump won with 304 votes to Clinton’s 227. In a shocking turn of events, the remaining 7 electoral votes went to candidates whose names weren’t even on the ballot. Of these rogue electors, three voted for Colin Powell, while the remaining four voted for John Kasich, Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Standing Rock activist Faith Spotted Eagle. Of the 538 men and women entrusted to represent their states’ election results, seven betrayed that trust. This has led many confused Americans to doubt the integrity of the system, and it has brought to light a very important question – what is the reason behind the Electoral College anyway?
When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they had serious doubts about the American people’s ability to make decisions for the country. As a safeguard, they put the Electoral College in place to undermine any unqualified leader that the people may choose. Alexander Hamilton laid out clearly in Federalist 68 that “the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In early America, the members of the Electoral College were chosen by the state legislatures, ensuring that they were well-qualified. However, there are no formal qualifications to be an elector (other than not being a federal elected official), and today’s electors are chosen by the parties on the state and local levels. Although their names are public information, we don’t know nearly as much about them as we do about our elected officials. They are seemingly random people, yet each is entrusted with one of the 538 votes that will choose the next president. How can we trust people who we don’t know to make an informed decision when they vote?
The modern argument for the electoral college is that it ensures a voice for the small states in presidential elections. It is no secret that urban coastal cities have much greater concentrations of people than rural small towns in the middle of the country. Many in those small towns worry that if the president were chosen by a popular vote, they would be ignored as candidates flock to win over the greatest concentrations of people. However, the current system gives a disproportionate amount of influence to a few key states, as the election came down to tens of thousands of votes in a couple of medium-sized states despite the losing candidate receiving 2.9 million more votes than the winner. Furthermore, the electors are people who could vote against their states’ election results. In Washington, for example, four of the state’s 12 electors went faithless and voted for people whose names weren’t even on the ballot. If four people can shift one third of a state’s votes in an election, how is the system protecting the voices of the people?In either of the ways that it is viewed, the Electoral College is undemocratic. The Hamilton theory derived from Federalist 68 shows that the system was designed as a safeguard against democracy. Furthermore, the theory of protecting small states by its very nature allows some Americans more influence on elections than others based solely on where they live. As bad as circumventing democracy may be, however, this is even worse because the Electoral College is convoluted. Is it a check on the people or a protector of small states' voices? A system designed to ensure that political elites have the power to check Americans’ decisions has given the final vote to 538 unknown men and women. A system designed to protect the voices of states of different sizes has allowed one third of a state’s vote to go to candidates who weren’t even on the ballot. Whatever the Electoral College’s job in today’s political process is supposed to be, we cannot deny that the system is failing, badly.