Local View: Electoral College a compromise to ensure all states matter

From the column: "Those disgruntled by the result of an election should reflect on their candidate's failure to receive broader national support rather than immediately resorting to an assault on our constitutional tradition."

R.J. Matson / Cagle Cartoons

Now in conference committee at the Minnesota Legislature is a compact with several other states to bypass the Electoral College system, as conceived in the Constitution. Do not be fooled by the appeal it makes to support “majority rule;” this proposal would give Minnesota's electoral vote to whatever presidential candidate wins a majority of the national vote — regardless of how Minnesota might vote.

Supporters of this compact realize a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College system would doubtless fail, so this is their attempt at an end-run around that to achieve the same result. Democrats expect their candidate to consistently receive the most votes, but without necessarily winning in the Electoral College. Hence their cry for “majority rule.”

The framers adopted the Electoral College system to avoid this very thing, where only numbers counted, and states would be effectively reduced to the level of counties for national elections. “One man, one vote” is their slogan. But this is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

The Electoral College is a reflection of constitutional compromise, where one house of the legislative body is elected by population while the Senate represents the states in their equality. This compromise originated in the insistence by small states, regardless of region, to be equally represented.

Had this been otherwise, would the New England states, whose population at the time was already less than the state of New York, have agreed to such a formula? This compromise reflected the desire to give weight to the states that created the federal government, not the other way around. States represent different interests, both regional and economic, and the Electoral College is an attempt to guarantee a national basis for the selection of a chief executive.


The Constitution could never have been ratified without this essential compromise, and the difficulty of amending it is just another brake to be sure hasty and ill-considered changes are hard to achieve.

Why has this change been proposed? Whenever the popular and Electoral College votes diverge, as they may do in occasional elections, there is a focus on this “undemocratic” institution. Huge Democratic majorities in states like California and New York essentially have no electoral value once the state has been carried. To avoid what is regarded as wasted votes, they seek to count nationally to take advantage of these “surplus” votes. They assume demographics will continue to favor their party, although this is mere conjecture.

But consider in recent elections how often the very smallest change in votes in a few key states — such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — have or would have tipped the election the other way.

In a nation of this size, the percentage of difference between the two presidential candidates is often really miniscule, regardless of the fact that mathematically such a difference — about a half percent of 1% — represents more than 500,000 votes. Perhaps those disgruntled by the result of an election should reflect on their candidate's failure to receive broader national support rather than immediately resorting to an assault on our constitutional tradition.

It is quite possible for the states to require their electors to reflect their individual state’s popular vote, rather than the “winner take all” system in use. Would we truly want large regional majorities from the two coasts alone choosing our presidents? The system of checks and balances left to us by the Founders is the surest guarantee of protecting minority rights.

Elections come and go and parties rise and fall, but the Constitution survives. Let us remember that.

J. Craig Scherf of Duluth researches and writes regularly for the publications of historical societies.

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J. Craig Scherf

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