Happy Thanksgiving: Should you be thankful for the electoral college?

Jim Lorenzen, CFP®, AIF®

You’re probably wondering, “What does the electoral college debate have to do with Thanksgiving?  Nothing.

It maybe has more to do with being thankful for our founding fathers’ wisdom.  And, I’m not talking about this past election, but the reasons why the electoral college was created for all elections we’ve had and will have in the future.  Those who say it’s `outdated’ probably don’t understand why it was created – and why eliminating it will likely never happen.

As an amateur historian – an un-ranked/low-rank/no-rank amateur, at that – I’ve found that learning about these things can be quite interesting, which shows you how much excitement I have in my life.

I won’t get into the weeds on this, lest your eyes begin to glaze over; however, I will give you the names of a couple books, should you find you’d like to learn more.

Even as far back as the Constitution Convention in 1787, race and class warfare was alive and well in America; indeed, the Constitution itself can be, and has been, viewed by some as a racist document, but that’s another story.  Slavery was the elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about since, at that time, the object was to keep the southern states on-board as the northern states were striving for unity in the separation from English rule.

The divisions were complicated:  Northern mercantile vs southern agriculture economies – large states vs. small states, etc.  So, regional and cultural differences not only divided many, but also made them in many ways interdependent.  As was also true then, the population centers, such as they were in those days, tended to be clustered around Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.  The rest of the population was spread-out throughout the colonies in rural areas, including the agricultural south.

In the convention, small states didn’t want to be dictated to by the large; and were concerned that regional influences could dominate national interest, so a system of ‘electors’ was created to ensure that smaller states could still have a voice in the democracy.
The system was based on state representation.   Each state would receive one elector for each senator (2 from each state), and one elector for each member of the House.  Each house member would come from a congressional district, the number of districts being determined by the state’s population.   No state would have less than 3 electors (Rhode Island’s 1 district + 2 senators), but only population growth would limit the larger states, albeit there was a moderation factor:  the limit of 1 elector for each of the two senators.

As I said, this is a short version.

6a00d83451c82369e201b8d0769f84970c-600wiStill, even today, no one regional area can dominate national election results; and, this latest election is just the most recent example (there have been others throughout our history) that demonstrates exactly what the founders had in mind.

Below is  a county-by-county map of the recent Presidential election results.  While it doesn’t reflect the degree of victory for each county (landslide vs. squeeker), it does provide a broad picture of the larger regional support patterns.

As you can see, Democrats did well in densely populated regions like the California coast, the Miami-Dade area in Florida, and New England.  Hence, Mrs. Clinton won more popular votes than did Mr. Trump  because of the high concentration population centers placed in only a few regions – the exact issue the founders in the Philadelphia State House that summer were trying to moderate.

If there had been no electoral college to moderate regional influence in this past election, the people in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and many other states would have had – and maybe would never have – a voice in the electoral process.

Indeed, the electoral college was the reason both presidential candidates spent time in Nevada.  Without the electoral system, they would have ignored the state completely.  Bottom line:  Every region should have an impact on a national election that decides a national leadership.  A few areas should not decide the government for the whole simply because they have high population clusters.
Source_ The Washington Post

While James Wilson of Pennsylvania proposed the elector system, it was James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, who noted that a system mediated through electors, rather than direct voting, would balance regional interests better as population grew and became more centralized.  Indeed, James Mason argued that the people could not be trusted!   With the electoral college the smaller states, particularly those in the South who wanted to protect slavery, were glad to see that New York and Philadelphia wouldn’t dominate national politics to the exclusion of the interests of the minority.  They didn’t talk about slavery much though.  As I said, it was the elephant in the room no one really wanted to address – the result being a violent split that took another seventy-three years to ignite.

The founding fathers argued all summer in 1787 and the result was a Constitution that today, 229 years later, is the oldest, still-functioning Constitution in the world!  Not France, not Greece, not England, not Spain – no country in the world has a constitution in effect that’s older than ours.  Amazing, huh?

A few possible reasons:

  • It’s intentional ambiguity, which allows for interpretation as times change, although many strict constructionists may not consider that a good thing.  However, when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted to create the first national bank in the Washington Administration, it was Thomas Jefferson (later the first Democrat) who opposed it because that power wasn’t granted to the president in the Constitution.
  • The amendment process, which allows for changes in the Constitution, even with the high hurdles, that can originate from the people through their elected representatives.
  • The willingness of our elected officials to recognize the Constitution as the supreme law.  Many world leaders have chosen to ignore theirs in the past.  Here, we’ve seen one President resign and, even in this most recent rancorous election, we’re seeing a smooth transition – maybe except in the media (they have to fill a lot of time) and in the streets, where many who demonstrate know little about the process they hate so much.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Constitution, here are a couple of good books you might enjoy:

The Summer of 1787, David O. Stewart

America’s Constitution, Akhil Reed Amar

If you’re an American history lover like me, you’ll find both of these enjoyable holiday reading.
Maybe I should have saved this post for the 4th of July!




Jim Lorenzen, CFP®, AIF®
The Independent Financial Group
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Jim Lorenzen, CFP, AIF

Jim Lorenzen is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER® professional and An Accredited Investment Fiduciary® serving private clients since 1991.   Jim is Founding Principal of The Independent Financial Group.  He is also licensed for insurance as an independent agent under California license 0C00742. The Independent Financial Group does not provide legal or tax advice and nothing contained herein should be construed as securities or investment advice, nor an opinion regarding the appropriateness of any investment to the individual reader. The general information provided should not be acted upon without obtaining specific legal, tax, and investment advice from an appropriate licensed professional.