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The Electoral College: Its Logical Foundations and Problems What (if Anything) Should Be Done About Improving the System of Electing a President?

10/17/2008 8:30 AM Bartos theater
Dr. Alexander S. Belenky, Visiting Scholar, MIT Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals; Judith Best, Professor of Political Science at State University Of New York/Cortland; Robert Hardaway, Professor of Law University of Denver College of Law; John Fortier, Research Fellow American Enterprise Institute

Description: Give a hearty cheer for the Electoral College, and for the Founding Fathers, whose good sense (and good luck), say these panelists, have led to a durable, wise and relatively fair system for electing a president.

By way of introduction, Alex Belenky details the mechanics of the current Electoral College, and explains "to a certain extent, this is not in line with what was initially designed or meant by the Founding Fathers." The founders' idea was to appoint "some wise people from different states and they would come up with their own ideas. These wise people, a so"called independent congress, would elect a president." Belenky encourages panelists to debate whether the current system, in which electoral votes are determined by how states vote, should be abolished, or combined somehow with a popular vote. The people's belief that they vote for president and vice president directly "is definitely a far cry from reality," he says.

The greatest fear of the founders, says Judith Best, was that of a majority tyranny that could control the entire government, and use it to oppress a minority. This fear led to the concept of three branches of government with separation of powers, and a federal principle shaping all governing institutions and decisions, where no popular votes for anything can be added across state lines. These are "load"bearing walls of the Constitution," says Best.

Founders determined a method to balance nation and states, viewed as "little republics where selfish interests are forced to compromise early and often." But they struggled with the presidential election, especially how to prevent Congress from making the president its lackey. So they cleverly created a temporary congress to hire the president, with "no further influence or power over the winner." This ephemeral body, the Electoral College, "beats all alternatives," believes Best. The goal of an election is to "select a president who can govern a vast, heterogeneous nation," not serve as a public opinion poll. Requiring candidates to win states structures the election, forcing candidates to form broad cross"sectional coalitions, which unlike a popular vote, leads to a swift, sure decision to fill the world's most powerful office.

Robert Hardaway believes the Electoral College is part of a grand plan that works quite well. This "parallel parliament" has but one duty: to meet every four years to select a president. John F. Kennedy, whose election in 1960 raised questions about the electoral mechanism, described a solar system of government power, all in balance. JFK believed any attempt to rework the Electoral College would mean transforming the other branches as well. Alternatives such as direct elections can lead to a proliferation of splinter parties, and to runoff elections where a majority of the people might reject the runoff candidates, but still end up with one of them. Founding Fathers wanted a system that protected minority rights and that "would elect a candidate whose support was broad as well as deep," says Hardaway.

The Electoral College works pretty well in general, says John Fortier. There's not a great likelihood that the popular vote will head in one direction and electoral vote in another, and while small states exert substantial influence, they are relatively evenly split between the two parties. Our system takes "seriously the need to win a majority or strong plurality in states to do things, not just to elect a president, but to pass state laws." The most serious argument against the Electoral College is that campaigns don't take place as much nationally as in selected states, says Fortier, and he'd be "open to looking at some sort of proportional system where states would allocate electors that might open upgreater competition."

About the Speaker(s): Judith Best teaches about political theory, American government and American political thought and jurisprudence. She has numerous publications, including: The Choice of the People? Debating the Electoral College (1996) and The Case Against Direct Election of the President: A Defense of the Electoral College(1975). She has spoken frequently before Congress and the public on the Electoral College System. She received her M.A. from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. from Cornell University. Best has been a member of the Cortland faculty since 1973.

After graduating Cum Laude from Amherst College in 1968 and Order of the Coif from New York University Law School, Robert Hardaway joined the U.S. Navy JAG Corps where he processed civil claims and also served as both a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer. After serving four years, he joined the Denver law firm of Rovira, Demuth, and Eiberger where he practiced civil litigation. He also later served as a Deputy District attorney for Arapahoe County and rounded out his litigation career as a Colorado Deputy Public Defender, where he handled hundreds of felony cases, including death penalty cases. From there, he first entered academia as a clinical supervisor at the University of Denver College of Law, ultimately becoming a tenured Professor of Law.

He is the author of 14 published books on law and public policy, and 29 law review articles, reviews, and articles in professional journals. More recently, he has expanded the scope of his professional writing to include docudramas and law"related fiction and novels and appears frequently on television and in the media commenting on legal issues.

John Fortier is the principal contributor to the AEI"Brookings Election Reform Project and executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission. A political scientist who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware, Boston College, and Harvard University, Fortier has written numerous scholarly and popular articles. His books include Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils (2006), After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College (2004), and Second"Term Blues: How George W. Bush Has Governed (2007). Fortier writes a column for Politico and is a frequent radio and television commentator on the presidency, Congress, and elections. He received his B.A. from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. from Boston College.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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