Hillary Clinton vs. James Madison
by John Samples
John Samples is
director of the Center for Representative Government
at the Cato Institute.
However the election
turns out, proponents of pure democracy will
call for the abolition of the Electoral College. Washington's newest
celebrity, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the latest convert to this
Some will say Ms.
Clinton opposes the Electoral College only because
Al Gore might lose the presidency despite getting a plurality of the
popular vote. I give Ms. Clinton more credit than that. Her opposition
to the Electoral College is entirely in step with her underlying
philosophy of government: centralizing liberalism. But that
philosophy contravenes the spirit of our Constitution as expressed
by its primary author, James Madison. We should stick with
Madison's idea of a federal republic and preserve the Electoral
Since the New Deal,
the Democrats have favored centralizing power in
Washington. They believe in a large and active national government
run by experts who engineer prosperity and social reform. For these
powers remaining with the states were at best a hangover
from an earlier, less-enlightened era, and at worst a positive hindrance
to "progress." Since 1932, Democrats have welcomed the slow
evisceration of the states and the aggrandizement of Washington.
You can't find a
better example of centralizing liberalism at work than
Ms. Clinton's health care debacle. She gathered a group of experts
who met in secret and concocted a complex plan to consolidate
American health care under Washington's control. The public
decisively rejected that grab for power, but say this for Ms. Clinton:
Her health care effort, like her call to abolish the Electoral College,
flows seamlessly from her philosophy of centralizing liberalism.
impulse differs sharply from the Founders' vision.
The Founders knew that legitimate government depended on the
public's will. James Madison called the Constitution "our complex
system of polity," which includes several conceptions of the public
will. In some cases, like the House of Representatives, the public will
can be measured by direct popular vote. In others, the public will
equals "the will of the States in their distinct and independent
capacities." What's clear is that the public will is far more than
simple majority rule.
What about the
Electoral College? Madison thought it embodied the
"federal will" of the nation. By that he meant that the Electoral College
included both the will of the nation as expressed in the popular vote
and the will of the states in a federal system (every state large or small
gets two electors). As Madison knew, this amalgamation gave small
and medium-sized states more leverage in presidential elections than
they would have in a popular vote. He found that fair given the
influence of large states in other areas.
In our own time, we
can see other advantages of the Electoral College.
Under direct popular election of the president, the Democratic
candidate would probably seek large majorities in major metropolitan
areas on both coasts, ignoring the smaller states in between. The
alienation of "Middle America" would increase. In contrast, the
Electoral College forces all candidates to seek support throughout the
our last election found Al Gore in Florida and George W.
Bush in Michigan and Oregon. In this way, the Electoral College
contributes to the unity of our fractious nation.
Madison's point about
federalism is also well taken. The Founders
feared the arbitrary exercise of political power, and they hoped strong
states would limit an expansive central government. If we abolish the
Electoral College, we will make it harder for the states to provide this
essential defense of liberty. And we will do so just as bold policy
successes in the states have shown the value of these "laboratories
The 2000 election is
sparking a great constitutional debate. On one
side are those like Ms. Clinton who wish to abolish the Electoral
College and further centralize power in Washington. On the other
are those who urge fidelity to Madison and his constitutional vision
of a complex, federal republic. It's a debate Madison should win.