The beauty of the Electoral College

In a recent book by Michael Moore, he describes the Electoral College as a ploy by the founding fathers to safeguard our nation from the ignorant masses who might elect the “wrong” president.  While this accusation may be true, I argue that the system has benefits.  (The history of the Electoral College can be found at the US Elections web site.  More information can be found on the Federal Register archives.)

The Electoral College emphasizes the role of the states in selecting the president.  On the surface, this smells of disenfranchisement; but, not if we view the real source of power as residing in the state and local governments.  The United States is too large and diverse for a top-down government.  Political compromises often lead to ineffective and wasteful legislation.  It is most practical to deal with local problems at the local level and let the federal government deal with the big issues such as civil rights, regulating interstate commerce, and providing national defense.

Many issues facing our people are too important to be held captive to the whims of the party in power.  Consider nationalized healthcare.  Since it is impossible to cover the full cost of treating every disease and condition, any system requires rationing of resources.  A Republican administration might push for the denial of medications to AIDS patients or restrict abortion rights, while a Democratic administration might advocate a single provider system that gives patients fewer choices and places a heavy financial burden on pharmaceutical companies, stifling future innovation.

The states are large enough to command the bargaining power needed to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and doctors, and to take into account the medical needs of its constituents.  Smaller states could partner with other states.  If a resident of a state is unhappy with her plan, she can move to another state or cross state lines for treatment.  As a case in point, Canada’s nationalized health care system rations the use of expensive diagnostic equipment such as MRIs.  As a result of the long waits, some Canadians choose to pay for services in the U.S.  The same is true of certain surgeries.  In England, older patients are denied certain treatments altogether, while many European countries limit the kinds of injuries that are covered.  It is therefore crucial to have available alternatives so that the individual can take charge of his or her health when a government plan fails.

The bottom line is that if a state screws up, it’s not a big deal.  If the federal government screws up, the consequences can be catastrophic.  Worse yet, the federal government is rarely forthcoming in admitting to mistakes, giving undue inertia to bad programs.  Is it not more prudent to experiment with innovations on the smaller state level so that the best systems can evolve?

Debates on federal programs are often embroiled in politics, which leads to sub-optimal legislation that is inefficient and at times counterproductive.   Consider the hand-wringing over stem cell research.  Fundamentalist Christians believe that a 100-cell blastocyst is off limits to research even when its fruits can lead to treatments that alleviate the pain and suffering of millions of patients with chronic and debilitating diseases.  Some states are taking the initiative and passing laws that override the federal government’s myopia (see the post on “God fares poorly in 2008 elections.”)  The states that legislate wisely and prosper will be emulated by others, and bad laws will be eventually die.  This kind of dynamic is only possible on smaller scales of government.

Perhaps the founding fathers didn’t trust in the average citizen’s ability to make the right presidential choice.  More likely, the founding fathers were emerged in the era of state-centered power, and envisioned that the newly-formed federal government was to have limited powers in the everyday lives of the people.  Whatever the intent, the structure of the Electoral College places the right emphasis on state powers.

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