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Constitutional compromises: The Electoral College

The Constitution balances democracy and safeguards against too much democracy, or "mobocracy." The Electoral College, a system where citizens vote for electors who then vote for the president, is one such safeguard. This system reflects the founders' belief that only the educated and propertied were prepared for virtuous citizenship.

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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Cherub
    Why does California have such a disproportionately large number of votes compared to the other states?
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:It's proportionate, not disproportionate! The number of votes a state gets in the Electoral College is based on population. California is the most populous state by far, with about 40 million people. Texas has about 30 million people, and Florida about 20 million. Wyoming is the least populous state at just about half a million.
      (19 votes)
  • leaf red style avatar for user Naoya Okamoto
    Today, what effect does the Electoral College have on the outcome of the presidential election, considering that most electors will vote in the same way that the people of the state that they are representing voted in? How would this differ from the voting patterns of the state?
    (2 votes)
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    • boggle blue style avatar for user Davin V Jones
      States with smaller populations have a disproportionate share of electors in relation to the voting population (each elector represents a smaller number of voters), giving those votes more 'weight' than those of voters residing in larger population states.

      Also, the electoral delegates of most states do not vote as a representation of the outcome of how the voting population votes, rather it is a winner take all system. So, if a candidate beat their opponent in some state by just one vote and that state has say 7 electoral votes, all 7 of those electoral votes now go to that candidate rather than 4 for the candidate and 3 for the opponent.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Mary Garcia
    what happens if theres no electoral college?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      The Electoral College means a vote in Wyoming counts more than a vote in California which some would say is inherently undemocratic. So I guess it depends on your attitude towards democracy. Should the will of the majority prevail or should people in less populated states have the ability to limit the votes of people in more populated states?

      The US Constitution already gives less populated states a relatively larger political voice by limiting each state, regardless of its population, to two US Senators. For example, Wyoming which has approximately 500,000 people, gets two Senators and California which has about 40,000,000 people, also gets two Senators.

      By setting the number of a state's US Electors equal to a state's total of US Senators and US Representatives, less populated states are getting a "double dip" of increased voting power relative to states with more people.

      In Federalist 68 Alexander Hamilton also explains the thought process of the Founders regarding the Electoral College. As was explained in this video, there was a consensus at the Constitutional Convention that anyone other than educated, wealthy, property-owning white males of privilege, may not be "qualified" to make an informed/enlightened choice because of their inferior intellectual/economic and therefore moral positions. Ergo, the chosen few - meaning themselves of course - are the only ones really worthy to make such an important decision and the unruly masses need to be contained when it comes to making such a momentous choice as who to be the US President.

      Is that democratic? Is it fair that a vote in one state counts relatively more than a vote in another state? Does that support the concept that all people are created equal and that we all are endowed with certain unalienable rights and that the power of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed?

      If there was no Electoral College, then the majority of the people - not some group who are supposed to represent the people - get to decide who the President is. What a radical concept...
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user john.matylonek
    Unfortunately, the Founders did not foresee the power of party (faction) to usurp the idea of protecting against a mobocracy. Because party is not required to be "democratic" and may, in fact, advocate for the dismantling of:

    1) Free, fair elections, majority rule, minorities protected for peaceful transitions of power
    2) The checking and balancing of all organized selfish powers for inclusive compromise governance
    3) The equal application of fair law and economic policy for justice
    4) The use of self-correcting evidence-based science, journalism for driving public policy and reporting corruption.

    The electors are the agents of parties who may actually elect a tyrant president ahead of a party that will invoke tyranny. So, we messed up by not recognizing Party as a formal power to be checked in the Constitution.
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      The framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the strong role that political parties would play. They were wary of factions, as discussed in Federalist No. 10 by James Madison, but they did not foresee parties becoming institutionalized as they are today. Parties can influence the issues you mentioned, such as fair elections and checks on power, by promoting group interests over common good, potentially undermining the principles of democratic governance, accountability, and compromise that the Constitution aimed to establish.
      (1 vote)
  • marcimus orange style avatar for user LillianMcGreevy
    In the video, it says "Then that state would have electors equal to the number of senators and representatives." Who are the electors, are they average citizens? And if so, how are they chosen? Could anyone become an Elector?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      Electors in the U.S. Electoral College are not average citizens in the sense that their role is quite specific and temporary; they are chosen specifically for the task of voting in the presidential election. Generally, electors are selected by their political parties at state party conventions or by the party's state committee. It's often a reward for being a loyal and active party member. While technically almost anyone could become an elector, in practice, they are usually party leaders, activists, or people with some affiliation or loyalty to the party. State laws vary regarding the qualifications and selection of electors.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Dr zahoor
    Why have there been relatively few constitutional amendments?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      One of the main reasons is that the amendment process is hard to carry out, requiring an intense majority. Amending the constitution is also only reserved for really significant policy changes, which don't come up too often. Lastly, the constitution doesn't really have to keep up with the times as much as you may think, because a lot of the lawmaking happens at the state level. State constitutions are much, much easier to amend, and are longer and more detailed than the US Constitution. Does this answer the question alright?
      (4 votes)
  • blobby purple style avatar for user Kitten
    Why a system where citizens vote for electors who then vote for the president can prevent mobocracy? I think mobs can vote for mob electors who then vote for a president which is a bad choice. Founders seemed to think the citizens would vote for elites, why is that?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      The idea behind the Electoral College was to add a layer of insulation between the population and the selection of the President. The founders were concerned about direct democracy; they feared that a charismatic tyrant could manipulate public opinion and come to power through direct election. By having electors—who were presumed to be more informed and responsible citizens—make the final decision, the founders believed they were safeguarding the presidency from being swayed by transient passions and manipulations of the populace.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user hoangmic003
    How do electors determine who they should vote for? Do the people vote for electors or do the electors choose to vote for a certain candidate based on what the state's popular vote is?
    (1 vote)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Caleb Chay
      Both; a slate of potential candidates/electors for the Electoral college are gathered months before the Election Day by the different political parties. Then on Election Day, the voters select a ticket with the candidates name and thereby select the specified electors. Those electors vote for the next president, and vote for which nominee (nominees are voted for by the people on Election Day) they want as the president.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Oj900
    Can i say that The Electoral College is controlled by the executive branch?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Trivia Master
    Don't political parties completely undermine the electoral college system? You can usually only vote for one candidate out of two candidates from two parties. Not to mention gerrymandering.
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      Political parties can indeed be seen as undermining the original intent of the Electoral College. The system was envisioned as a deliberative body that would make independent choices about the most suitable candidates for president. However, with the rise of the two-party system, electors are generally expected to vote for their party’s candidate, turning the process into a more predictable, less deliberative formality. Furthermore, practices like gerrymandering manipulate electoral district boundaries to create a political advantage for a particular party, which can affect the distribution and impact of electoral votes. This, combined with the winner-take-all approach used by most states, means that the Electoral College may not function as an independent check on popular passions as originally intended.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

- [Instructor] In this series of videos about the Constitution, we've been discussing all the elements of balance and compromise that appear in the Constitution, the balance between large states and small states and between the different branches of government. But in this video I want to talk about one particular compromise made at the Constitutional Convention over how the president of the United States is elected, and that is the electoral college. I think these compromises reveal some real conflict among the framers over how they think the American Revolution did. Did they think that the Revolution went too far, had created too much equality and too much liberty for people who weren't ready to deal with it? Or did it not go far enough? So let's talk about this idea that perhaps the Revolution went too far, that the average American Joe, or Jedediah, I guess, could be the Revolutionary version of Joe, had too much a sense of his own importance, was going to tear down the social structures that had seemed natural during the American Revolution, the wealthy elites, the middling farmers, the rough and rowdy workers. You'll remember that one of the incidents that led to the decision to revise the Articles of Confederation was Shays's Rebellion in which a group of unruly farmers, Revolutionary War veterans, had marched against the governor of Massachusetts. So the people were used to rebelling, and they first had rebelled against Great Britain. But now that war was over, and they started rebelling against state governments. So there's a real sense throughout the Constitution that the founders were attempting to balance democracy, a representative government, with what they saw as too much democracy or mobocracy in their words, that unruly mobs who perhaps lacked the virtue of elite, educated citizens would foolishly tear down government that they weren't prepared to be part of. Now, you see that in things like the Senate. The members of the Senate were appointed, not elected, up until the 20th century. The idea that there had to be one part of the legislative branch that was selected by the better sort of men, the sort of people who really knew what good leadership looked like, not by a mob that might be swayed by any fancy talking politician. The founders didn't want all white men to be able to vote. They wanted voting to be reserved to the elite, the propertied, the educated, those who were prepared to be virtuous citizens. It wouldn't be until the 1820s that all white men could vote in elections, regardless of how much property they owned. Of course, it wouldn't be until the late 19th and 20th centuries that women and minorities would get the right to vote. So they had a very dim idea of the average citizen's ability to engage productively in democracy. And another way that they show this in the Constitution is in the process of electing the president. Article II establishes the executive branch, and it also discusses how presidential elections shall work. And it's a kinda complex process, the electoral college. But the simple version is that instead of having citizens vote directly for the president, the citizens would vote in each state, and then that state would have electors equal to the number of senators and representatives. And those electors would then cast votes for the president, and whoever got the most electoral votes should be president. And we still have this system today. This is a map of the current number of electoral votes that each state has. And really, what the founders intended here was to have a safeguard of the office of the president, believing that it would be possible for a mob to be swayed, even the better sorts of citizens, into voting for a politician who wouldn't be good for the office. And so they moved away from direct democracy into a slightly more complicated indirect system just to put an extra layer of safety in between the office of president and the unruly masses.