Giving thanks for a brilliant idea — the Electoral College

This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for one of the most brilliant inventions of the founding generation, the Electoral College.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. My declaration of thanks to this archaic yet ingenious system has nothing to do with the particular outcome of the presidential election in 2016. The Electoral College is a brilliant idea and would remain such regardless of who won.

The original idea was, as so many things of the time were, a compromise. In this case, it was a compromise between those who wanted the president elected by a vote in Congress — much like a prime minister in a parliamentary system — and an election by a popular vote.

Trying to incorporate the best parts of both, the Founders believed that the Electoral College would be both a buffer and provide fair power to all states regardless of size. I think they were right.

Before I go on, though, it might be helpful to ask a simple question. What are we seeking to create in our government, and how does our voting process encourage (or discourage) that?

I believe our goal in a representative democracy is to create a good government responsive to the entire population of the country.

In constructing that government, we should choose the system most likely to get us there.

Today, most people believe the most moral form of democratic decision making is the concept of “one person, one vote” — or election by straight popularity. But if “governing the country well” and trying to strike some kind of balance between minority viewpoints and majority will to serve all the citizens of a country is the goal, is a popular vote ever going to create that government?

Does it, for instance, consider the opinions of, and deem important, the concerns of Americans living in sparsely populated areas who have unique problems foreign to city-dwellers?

The answer, of course, is no. That’s why the Founders chose a representative republic over a direct democracy. They wanted a government responsive and representative of the people, but not enslaved to majoritarian opinion at every turn.

That’s why they sought to create an electoral system for the presidency that would create a good, responsive government, rather than one that perfectly reflected the majority will.

After all, our goal here should be a more perfect union.

Today, America has been increasingly sliding toward an urban-rural divide that is incredible dangerous. Today, infinitesimally small geographic areas comprised of dense population centers make up a larger and larger portion of the voting electorate. These areas have one perspective and one political opinion. The rest of the country has another altogether.

Yet, numerically speaking, these dense urban cores collectively make up more people, and thus they could call the shots by virtue of simply being more populous.

But is that going to produce good government? What happens when the less populated areas of the country control our food supply, energy supply and a vast majority of our natural resources? Should their voice be dismissed and ignored because it is in a powerless minority?

Would it not be insanity to allow policy that impacted those areas to be dictated entirely by people who have no connection to or understanding of those issues?

Such a situation would empower an American Mao to implement a new Great Leap. The concept of an enlightened urban elite dictating agricultural output has a rather heinous legacy in human history, having killed millions.

The results do not have to be that disastrous for it to be a mistake to allow the geographically tiny urban elite to dictate all policy without paying attention to the rest of the country.

A balance between popular will and geographic pluralism is much more preferable.

The reason the Electoral College is so brilliant is because it empowers that minority, it emboldens rural geographies, and ensures the farmers in middle America and academics in the cities are all engaged.

A popular vote would do no such thing.

Is it perfect? No. It has many drawbacks. Can it be reformed and made better? Yes it can. I’d like to see electoral votes given out by congressional district (as Maine does) nationwide, which would encourage candidates to show up beyond a handful of swing states, in an attempt to cobble together their needed number of votes from anywhere they can.

This would, of course, necessitate a less partisan apportionment process nationwide, and an end to gerrymandering. But a guy can dream, right?

Sadly, though, this entire conversation is over before it even begins. Americans no longer concern themselves with what system makes the best government, so the future of this brilliant system is probably a dim one. For now, though, I remain thankful it exists.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.