When you vote for president in the general election this November, take a close look at the ballot and you’ll notice a number of names in smaller type below that of the presidential candidates. Those listed in the fine print are the people you are actually voting for, since we do not have direct election for president in the US.
In 2004 I had the privilege of serving as a Republican presidential elector when I (and eight others) received 1,102,169 votes on November 2, 2004. A few decades ago, Louisiana voters actually cast votes for individual electors who were grouped by party and the names of the presidential and vice-presidential nominees. A voter could apportion the state’s electoral vote total amongst the various candidates and electors, which is why popular high-profile people were sought by the major political parties to stand as presidential electors. In 1976, a well-known physician on the Republican slate ran ahead of his fellow Gerald Ford electors in Louisiana, though Democrat Jimmy Carter fared well enough to avoid creating a split in the state’s electoral votes.
And as mundane and simple as the duties of being a presidential elector are, civics books contain a handful of asterisks denoting the occasions when individuals failed to do the easiest of constitutional tasks.
One of the best attributes of the electoral college is its default recognition of the importance of states. In this respect, the electoral college is a monument to federalism. Eradicate the electoral college and a restructured US Senate based upon population instead of sovereign states will not be far behind.
Secondly, the electoral college does a better job containing election fraud than national popular vote. For example, tainted votes in say Illinois can at no worse throw that state’s electoral votes to a candidate as opposed to providing the margin of victory via direct election.
Thirdly, the electoral college system compels candidates to politically invest in regions instead of just population centers. In direct election, California, Texas, Florida and New York would dominate while Delaware, New Hampshire, Nevada and other small to medium sized swing states would be ignored.
The electoral college system also tends to philosophically moderate candidates as they cannot just gin up turnout by playing hard to their respective bases. The electoral college forces candidates to develop and present more of a national message as opposed to a Dallas, San Francisco or Phoenix message.
The faithless elector is the electoral college’s greatest weakness, though that same flexibility is also part of the genius of this process (keep reading). Though the late Fox McKeithen had his staff type George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney in the appropriate blank on the official electoral vote ballot, I technically could have objected and written in the name of any American legally qualified to serve as president, though to have done so would have betrayed the wishes of the over one million Louisiana voters who expected to see the state’s electoral votes go to Bush. That is a problem, though the remedy would be to enact legislation on the state level that would obligate electors to follow the will of the people.
The real genius in the system pertains to a “doomsday” scenario should tragedy befall the winning presidential and/or vice-presidential nominees between the November election and the casting of the electoral votes. In that situation, the death of the president-elect or vice-president-elect would not result in the second-place ticket ascending to the White House but would simply throw the decision to the presidential electors to choose substitutes who reflect the philosophy of those who were elected. This happened in 1872 when Horace Greeley (who was the de facto Democratic candidate against President U.S. Grant) died after the presidential election but before the electoral votes were cast. Though this scenario would hopefully be rare in the future, it would be difficult for a national popular vote system to incorporate such a critical contingency.
While Americans take for granted the peaceful transfer of power from one political faction to another (instead we should take great pride in this), laws should be crafted to anticipate the maximum of applications, including dreaded worst case scenarios. Abandoning the electoral college would mean far more than the abolition of a system viewed by critics as political anachronism but a major restructuring of the relationship between the federal government and the states and between presidential candidates and the people.