Recent events have, as has occurred periodically in the past, brought forth those who would call for an end to the Electoral College. These individuals posit that the election of President and Vice President of the United States should be by virtue of the absolute popular vote across the whole of the nation. Some simply disavow or fail to understand the Federal aspects of the particular Republican form of government enshrined in the Constitution. Others claim that while the Electoral College may have had relevance in the past, that those reasons no longer apply.
Proponents of abolition of the Electoral College would do well to read and understand more of the late 1790s and of the writings and discourse that led to the creation of the Electoral College as our means of selection of the chief executive authority. In particular, Federalist #39, penned by James Madison, explains the fact that the United States was explicitly composed as neither a purely National government deriving its powers solely from the individual citizens nor a purely Federal government deriving its powers solely from the individual sovereign States joined together. Indeed, neither a purely National nor a purely Federal form of government would have been likely to have been ratified by all of the States at the time. Larger, more populous states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, may have welcomed a purely National government in the greater power they could wield in such an arrangement. But the smaller States at the time, concerned over loss of their Sovereignty, were disinclined to subject their citizens to the control of the citizens of the larger States. This is no different than the concerns that remain today that use of a national popular vote for election of the President would diminish if not almost eradicate the role of less populous states in the electoral process. But while a purely National form of government would not have been accepted by many of the smaller States, the weaknesses of the more wholly Federal system of the Articles of Confederation had quickly proven that a more purely Federal form of government in which all power derived from the States and not from the individual citizens could not endure nor address the needs of the collection of States as a whole unless invested with powers that would have made the small number of larger states subservient to the larger number of smaller states. This flaw of a purely Federal system persists to this day, as seen by the different political leanings of a small number of highly populous states versus those of a large number of smaller states.
The differences among the States that led to the weakness of a purely Federal form of government with limited powers were substantial. While the people of the colonies were united by a common language, joined by the blood and fervor that together they had exerted to break free of the rule of England, and geographically co-dependent due to their great distance across the ocean from Europe, they also were not of a uniform set of backgrounds, cultural norms, nor industrial capabilities. Furthermore, each of the 13 States viewed themselves, not first as parts of the larger whole, but rather in the true use of the word State at the time, referring to independent sovereign entities in their own right, independent of one another. Indeed, in Federalist 39, Madison refers to the “States” of Holland, Venice and Poland in his discussion of what constitutes a Republican form of government, one deriving its powers either directly or indirectly from the governed. This use of the term State was consistent with the meaning as understood at the time for each of the 13 original United States. In joining together under the Constitution, they did not view themselves as submitting to a consolidated single National government. They saw themselves joining in a “more perfect” union than a purely Federal form as embodied in the Articles of Confederation. But they still considered the “union” to be a union of largely sovereign entities, not a combination into a single consolidated sovereign entity. Madison goes on to explain how the Constitution combined both National and Federal forms of Republics through the differences in composition of the House of Representatives versus the Senate. Similarly, Madison observes how this same approach of combining Federal principles and National principles applied to the creation of the Electoral College, assigning numbers of electors based on numbers of representatives in both houses of congress.
The independence of the states on matters not delegated to the federal government by the constitution continues to arise to this day. Few if any of the states are devoid of areas of law in which they would willingly bend to the dictates of the other states. Cultural differences are as strong as they were at the time of our founding. We are a diverse nation comprised not simply of many diverse individuals, but of diverse regions and assemblages of a variety of collections of otherwise locally more similar populations. So today as in the late 1700s, the principles that guided creation of the Electoral College persist, combining aspects of a Federal system providing a measure of co-equality among the states with aspects of a National system providing a degree of proportionality among all the individuals of the country. Abolition of the Electoral College would abandon the Federal aspects of selection of the President, with substantially increased risk of the several States fragmenting into separate countries over time due to loss of their Federal stature and due to undesired intrusions by a National government on their individual cultural and regional diversity and sovereignty over matters currently reserved to the States.