Only a few months remain until the national election. As we have heard in the past, there are renewed calls for an end to the Electoral College system of choosing our president. We’re told that the system is antiquated. It makes no sense. It allows election of a president who doesn’t even necessarily get the greatest share of votes of all the nation’s citizens. Unfair! Unjust! Dump the Electoral College!
There are only two possibilities regarding those who make such an argument. Either they don’t understand the constitutional system as it was designed or they do understand and they want to do away with it for the sake of larger centralized government and more control over citizens. Both scenarios are unfortunate. Either way, the nation as a whole is the greatest loser of all.
Believe it or not, the Electoral College, when properly understood, is easily appreciated as a cornerstone of liberty. Why? Because the United States of America weren’t formed into a union by the people at large. Their union was agreed to and established by the people organized in states–sovereign states, to be exact. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, in fact, Americans spoke of the union in terms of plurality (“the United States are”) rather than terms of singularity as is unfortunately popular today (“the United States is”). It wasn’t just the people who formed the union. It was the people of Massachusetts, the people of Delaware, the people of Virginia, and the people of each of the other original states who consented to the Constitution, one state at a time.
When new sovereign states joined the union, it was by their own consent, state by state. Actually, to be exact, it was the people of the various independent republics who added their sovereign state to the collection of other sovereign states in the union. The people of the varied states transferred a limited amount of their sovereignty to the federal government for the sake of the union, but only those enumerated powers specifically enunciated in the Constitution. No other powers were granted the federal government; they remained with the states and the people of the states.
Furthermore, it was understood that sovereign states, once they had joined the union, reserved the right to leave that union–though this was a choice to be acted upon only in the severest of circumstances owing to the benefits to be lost by doing so. To confirm this one need only to consult a text written by Philadelphia attorney and judge William Rawle (1759-1836) entitled A View of the Constitution of the United States of America (originally published in 1825). “Every state must be viewed as entirely sovereign,” he wrote, “in all points not transferred by the people who compose it, to the government of the Union: and every exposition that may be given to the constitution, inconsistent with this principle, must be unsound” (my emphasis added in bold).
In other words, if the people of a state have not given the central government a particular power in absolute specificity, that power remains with the people of the state alone. Beyond the specific, enumerated constitutional powers granted the federal government it has absolutely no authority to intervene in a state’s affairs. Should the federal government attempt to do so–if it attempts to weaken the sovereign status of a state–its attempts can be rebuffed, even to the point of secession from the union (though this course should not lightly be entered upon). Let us return again to the words of Rawle’s text on the Constitution regarding state sovereignty: “The people of the states unite with each other, without destroying their previous organization.”
So solid was this understanding in the United States prior to the Southern Rebellion (1861-1865) that the book by Judge Rawle was used as an approved text at the United States Military Academy at West Point! Recognizing this fact, one can now see why so many loyal graduates of West Point decided to defend the right of secession when that unfortunate war began.
What does all of this have to do with the Electoral College? A great deal, actually. It is the people of the sovereign states who elect the president of the federal government, not the people at large. Mississippi makes its choice. Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Montana, California, Florida–these and the others each make their choice as people gathered in states. Then, and only then, are their choices put into effect at the Electoral College. The laws as to how this is done differ from state to state. How can this be? Because each state, as pointed out, remains sovereign. Some states give all electoral votes to the winning candidate. Others divide them based upon popular vote within the state.
It may not sound like much, but the system is designed to keep the power for presidential elections in the hands of the people of the states. Loss of the Electoral College would mean loss of one more brick in the wall between tyrany and freedom. That wall is already weakened. Will it hold much longer?