The Electoral College

November 8, 2013

The Design of the Electoral College

Presidential elections often prompt criticism of the system we use to appoint a chief executive. It may seem surprising, therefore, that when the so-called “Electoral College” was first adopted, Alexander Hamilton could say that it was almost the only important part of the proposed Constitution that had escaped severe censure. In fact, Hamilton boldly affirms that if the system “be not perfect, it is at least excellent”. Today, far from being considered perfect or excellent, the Electoral College is criticized for being somehow undemocratic. Is this criticism justified?  Ashland University Professor David Foster addresses that criticism.

Presidential elections often prompt criticism of the system we use to appoint a chief executive. It may seem surprising, therefore, that when the so-called “Electoral College” was first adopted, Alexander Hamilton could say that it was almost the only important part of the proposed Constitution that had escaped severe censure. In fact, Hamilton boldly affirms that if the system “be not perfect, it is at least excellent”!

Today, far from being considered perfect or excellent, the Electoral College is criticized for being somehow undemocratic. But what is most striking about Hamilton’s defense of it in Federalist 68 is how many different advantages it was intended to blend together. Yes, it was “desirable” that the “sense of the people” should operate in the choice of president, but it was “equally desirable” that the immediate election be made by men possessing the information and capacities necessary to make a good judgment, and that these “electors” make their judgment in “circumstances favorable to deliberation.” In addition, it was “peculiarly desirable” that the choice afforded as little opportunity as possible for popular “tumult and disorder.” Above all, “nothing was more to be desired” than that “cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” those “most deadly adversaries of republican government,” be kept from influencing the choice. It was “no less important” that the president for his continuation in office be independent of all except the people themselves. For if re-election depended on a known body of men — a legislature, for example — the president might sacrifice his duty to please that body.  This mention of the president’s independence is the only allusion in the essay to a debate that took months to resolve in the Convention, following the original suggestion that the national legislature choose the president.

Thus, the method described in the Constitution aims at a calm, thoughtful choice unaffected by domestic disorder and the machinations of foreign governments. At the same time, because it is intended to combine dependence on the people of America with meaningful input from those with a deep knowledge of politics, it aims at a wise choice the people will support.

In Federalist 68, Hamilton explains how all these advantages, discussed apparently in ascending order of importance, are achieved through the system of electors. In part because that system discounts “low intrigue and the little arts of popularity,” Hamilton perceives “a moral certainty” or “a constant probability” that the office of president will almost always be filled by “characters preeminent for ability and virtue.” One aspect of the system that Hamilton does not even mention, though it is implicit in many of its features, was the blending of federal and national considerations (as well as of the interests of large and small states). Like the Constitution as a whole, the process for selecting a president reflects the fact that the United States is a “compound republic.”

Despite Hamilton’s high praise for the system, it was one of the first parts of the Constitution to be amended.  The Jefferson-Burr deadlock of 1801 revealed the problem of having electors make two votes without distinguishing President and Vice-President. The Electoral College cannot be blamed for Hamilton’s death, but hard feelings arising from the 1801 electoral deadlock contributed to the duel with Aaron Burr that led to Hamilton’s death just one month after the problem was corrected by the 12th Amendment. Other oversights were remedied in the 20th (1933) and 25th Amendments (1967), but none of these changes fundamentally altered the system.  Despite the great transformation in the country since 1787, the Electoral College system has proved remarkably flexible and stable, delivering appointments that have been widely accepted as legitimate by the American people for two and a quarter centuries.

David Foster, Associate Professor of Political Science, Ashland University


In Live Online Course, Teachers Think Constitutionally

Professor Jeffrey SikkengaBefore Professor Jeff Sikkenga was asked to teach an online course last spring, he says, “I was one of the greatest skeptics of online courses. I just felt that you could never replicate the classroom experience.” After teaching Live Online courses for the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, he’s changed his mind. “With this new technology, you really can have a conversation.”

Live Online courses in American History and Government are taught via the popular teleconference service called WebEx. With a broadband internet connection, an ordinary computer or laptop, and a standard web browser, students and the instructor can see and hear one another, live and in real time. Dr. Sikkenga says, “We have great students who love to discuss the material, and the technology permits that. There is lots of back and forth dialogue.”

A chat feature allows students to send the instructor private messages during the seminar. “Sometimes they send me online links to additional material, such as Supreme Court cases not on the syllabus,” said Dr. Sikkenga, about his recent Live Online course on the Supreme Court. Because the online course is spread out over eight weeks — unlike the summer courses, which take place in one intense week — students who are particularly intrigued with a session’s theme may have time to look up additional resources.

Technological glitches are rare. “I come away after three hours not fatigued or frustrated but rather thinking, ‘That was fun!’” Sikkenga said.

The Supreme Court has profoundly affected the course of American history, yet few citizens understand how it operates. Teachers need a clear understanding, since important moments in American history are often heralded by Supreme Court decisions. For example, “almost any course on American history will cover Brown v. Board of Education [the decision that found segregated schools for African Americans were not 'separate but equal' to white schools, but rather 'inherently unequal']. Some textbooks cover this decision in a way that is not very accurate; others in a way that is accurate but incomplete.”

We often fail to grasp that the judicial branch operates in a fundamentally different way from the other two branches of government, Sikkenga explains. “As Hamilton [explaining the judiciary in The Federalist] said, it doesn’t have the power of the purse or the power of the sword; it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exercise its own will; it only applies its judgment.”

In the online discussion, teachers in Sikkenga’s course seek guidance in thinking “constitutionally. We are not trained to think that way,” Sikkenga notes. The average citizen reacts to a Supreme Court decision as he would to a legislative or executive action, measuring it against his own sense of fairness. But the Court measures the law against the Constitution.

It is important to understand how this works, though. “The Supreme Court is a court of law, not a Constitutional court. It is not the justices’ job to tell us what the Constitution means. Their job is to decide legal cases that come before them. There are lots of other courts around the world who assess the constitutionality of law before it is passed. Our court doesn’t have that power.” It reviews cases that have risen to it from the lower courts, cases that challenge existing laws or applications of law. The Court assesses the constitutionality of laws after citizens and communities have already lived with it in practice. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court overturned an understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment that had been in place since the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and after intervening decades of Jim Crow laws and practices.

Politics play a role at times, as justices decide which cases to hear. Yet justices’ concern for “the institutional reputation and authority of the Court” usually plays a greater role. Aware of their constitutionally restricted authority, justices have learned to avoid rulings that carry an appearance of bias. “The classic example is the Dred Scott decision. The Court thought it was settling the slavery problem for the US once and for all, but in fact it did the opposite, because a huge percentage of the American people thought its decision was purely political.”

A contemporary illustration of the Court’s concern for its institutional reputation may be Chief Justice Roberts’ ruling in June on national health care legislation. “Roberts was persuaded of the opinion that he delivered” upholding the individual mandate as justified under Congress’s power to tax. “But a lot of scholars have also said that Roberts found grounds to uphold the legislation because he was worried that a five-to-four decision striking down the law would look overtly political,” Sikkenga commented.

Overall, Sikkenga hopes students “use the course as a means to understand the Constitution. If my students leave the course saying, ‘I learned about the Supreme Court,’ I’m happy; but if they leave saying ‘I deepened the way I think about the Constitution,’ I’m even happier,” he said.


Live Online Graduate Courses in American History and Government

New! Ashbrook’s Live Online Graduate Courses in American History and Government are designed with the social studies teacher in mind. Courses are live and online – no boring recorded lectures, and no assignments that you complete anonymously and send to a professor you never see. Courses are condensed and conveniently scheduled so you can earn two graduate credits in just eight weeks! Use these credits to update your skills and credentials, to apply to a Master’s degree, or apply them toward our Master of Arts in American History and Government.

Our Spring 2013 schedule will be announced soon! Watch your e-mail for the announcement.


Live Online Saturday Seminars for Teachers

New! The Ashbrook Center is pleased to offer social studies teachers a series of FREE online seminars this school year. These seminars are on Saturday mornings throughout the fall and spring semesters. Seminars are designed to give teachers the opportunity to learn about and discuss important topics and texts in American history and government with nationally recognized scholars and teachers.

The Live Online Saturday Seminars will be broadcast through the WebEx Training Center. If you have a computer with a standard web browser and a broadband internet connection, participation is as simple as clicking on a link; WebEx Training Center will take care of the rest.

Our next Live Online Saturday Seminar is on Saturday, November 17 from 10 am until Noon (Eastern). The topic is “The Bill of Rights” and it will be taught by Prof. Gordon Lloyd (Pepperdine University)

For more information, or to register, click here.


Ashbrook High School Webinar Series

New! Ashbrook introduces a series of free webinars designed to bring the nation’s best historical scholarship into your classroom. Delivered live via the WebEx web conference platform, your students can learn from leading scholars in US history and government. You and your students can see, hear, and speak to our professors live and online.

Each webinar investigates key themes in American history and government. For more information about the program or to apply to host a webinar in your classroom, click here.


Constitution Booklets Available

The Ashbrook Center offers a pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. These convenient booklets make excellent classroom resources for American history, civics, and government classes.

Copies of the booklet are available for $2.00 each. Special bulk pricing is available for quantities of 10, 25, 100 or more. Standard shipping and handling is included at no charge; rush delivery is available for an additional fee.

To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit us at ashbrook.org.

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