Cook: The Electoral College is a System Based on Trust, Discernment, and Ideals
By Robert Cook
During the past general assembly session Democrats, through HB 177 and SB 399, aimed to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This compact, as its supporters claim, would use the national popular vote to choose a member state’s electors instead of the state vote, thus turning the electoral college into a popular vote system. While this bill did not survive the General Assembly this year, liberals and progressives argue that a popular vote system is more democratic, and allows more individual input for the presidency as opposed to an “archaic” electoral college system.
However, a quick look at the electoral college and why it was created shows there are more factors at play than a snapshot at the nation’s popular opinion. If we look at the founding fathers’ writings in the Federalist Papers, we see a system that is community oriented and based on localized trust of informed individuals rather than a barrier against democratic principles.
Madison described the Electoral College in Federalist 39 saying:
“The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society.”
With this, we see two things the electoral college weighs. First, “distinct and coequal societies,” refers to each of the states. With each state having differing customs, laws, and cultures they’re input matters. The ideals across each state, and even within each state, differ from each other. A strictly popular system pitting the full weight of California’s 39.5 million people against Wyoming’s roughly 575,000 would mean Wyoming’s wishes would never be considered. California’s votes would have more than 50 times the power of Wyoming’s in a popular metric.
Madison sought balancing state input a bit to prevent this disparity.
The second factor is population, or as Madison puts it, “unequal members of the same society.” The founding fathers struck a compromise with popular vote system supporters by instituting the electoral college. While state input was necessary, accommodating for population allows states that have more citizens to have adequate representation. Wyoming receives 3 electoral votes, Virginia receives 13, California receives 55. Under our current system, population is a large factor, but instead of having California’s vote weigh more than 50 times greater, it is limited to roughly 18 times.
Along with the practical considerations of balancing state and popular influences on the Presidential election, there is the role of electors themselves. There is debate over whether electors can be legally bound by the states to reflect their popular vote. The State of Washington
sued one of its electors in 2018 for casting his vote for a moderate Republican instead of Hillary Clinton, who won the state’s popular vote. The question around this issue is whether electors are chosen to act in their best judgement or is their role more procedural binding them to the will of their state?
Hamilton in Federalist 68 stated:
“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.”
Hamilton makes it clear that the position of elector is based on trust, discernment, and judgement. That the states are choosing electors based on who they trust, their ideals, and their beliefs.
This is why the role of elector is so important. The founding fathers envisioned a presidential electoral system where the “distinct and coequal societies,” the states, would choose from within who they trust to be an informed elector and to cast those votes for their state. The Founders’ ideal electoral college was where people could go to the polls and see names of community members that they would recognize and select one because they knew and trusted that person to decide the presidency.
However, in current practice, our electors are largely unknown. Our ballots do not display their names. Most voters this year will only know Trump and Biden, not the electors they are actually voting for. Our electoral college system would make more sense to the average voter and the average American if they saw it as the local and state-oriented system it really is instead of just a short list of nationalized names with little of the process exposed to them.
Hamilton’s statement is also why the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact flies in the face of the founding fathers’ intent. By having the electors chosen by a national body that largely has no clue about the ideals and beliefs of those striving to be elector in each state, the decision is no longer made based on community-oriented trust. It’s the voting equivalent of out of state donors funding Virginia politicians and influencing our elections. Instead of dollar bills and wallets, it comes in the form of ballots and ballot boxes.
In reality, our electoral college chosen by state-based popular votes has a tremendous opportunity for Presidential politics to be local. Both parties have district and state conventions for choosing electors. Community members from the Appalachian plateau, Shenandoah Valley, Northern Virginia, southside, and in Virginia Beach represent their local areas in the electoral college. Although unintentional, the lack of public knowledge of who our electors are makes this important process seem nationalized when in reality it is local. People are more likely to have personal connections with their elector than Trump or Biden, and seeing local names would help restore efficacy in our political system, as people would go to the polls knowing a local representative instead of thinking strictly about two national figures.
Robert Cook is a candidate for Presidential Elector in the 6th Republican Congressional District. He received his MA in Government and Political Communication from Johns Hopkins University, and is a secondary History and Government teacher, who has been involved with the GOP since he joined the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee in high school.