In 1789, when the Founding Fathers argued in the heat of the Constitutional Convention, one of their major concerns was checking the potential for tyranny in a strong, centralized, national government. They built a series of tripwires and safeguards into the Constitution to keep this from happening. Most of us are familiar with the two major safeguards, the three branch government, and the checks and balances system that keeps each of the three branches as watchdogs over the other two.
But there are many smaller safeguards built in, all designed to keep anyone from centralizing power in one place of the government for too long, or too tightly.
One of those safeguards is the Electoral College.
Now, I recognize that those of us who grew up learning civics from Schoolhouse Rock did not hear much about the Electoral College until the 200 election. Those who grew up after Schoolhouse Rock probably know even less. Good news, Schoolhouse Rock corrected that mistake and for its Mega-Box Set DVD release, created a brand new song:
[Cheerleaders, as a cheer:]E-L-E-C-TOR-AL
Electoral College - we've got a tale to tell!
[Sung by voting box:]So what if we don't have a football team?
At least we never have to write a theme.
No classes, no professors, no tuition,
Yet we're the goal of every politician.
[With cheerleaders:]'Cuz everyone who graduates becomes the president.
I'm gonna send your vote to college,
When you vote for president,
And if you'll let me share some knowledge,
You'll understand this big event!
The folks who wrote our Constitution
Had the idea for this plan,
And it's been used in our elections
Since our government began.
When you pull down on my levers for the person of your choice,
You're also choosing state electors, who will have the final voice.
They're called the electoral college, and they'll meet to stipulate
Who the voters have selected to be the winner in each state.
Now, the number of electors
That your state is going to get
Is based on total population
That's a formula that's set.
And when the popular vote is counted
To find a winner in each state,
Each state will pledge all of its electors
To choose the winning candidate!
[Winning candidate:]I like it! I like it!
[Cheerleaders:]E-L-E-C-TOR-ALElectoral College - and we deserve a yell!
And even if the vote is close,
And someone wins by just a little, tiny hair,
Electors give that person all their votes,
And it's considered fair and square!
I'm gonna send your vote to college
When you vote for president,
And now the electoral college
Will work the way our founders meant.
[Spoken by vote box:]So what if they don't have a big macho football team?
[Sung, with cheerleaders:]It's every politician's special dream!
[Vote box:] 'Cuz everyone who graduates,
[With cheerleaders:] Yes, everyone who graduates,
Everyone who graduates becomes the president!
So there, now you know. What the song doesn't tell you is "Why?"
Well, here's the deal. We could have a popular vote for President in this country. Lot's of people think it's a good idea. But... The population of urban centers outnumbers those who live in rural areas. The Founders well understood that geographic differences would tend to creat common cause among the voters of a region. Certainly not everyone in a particular place will vote the same way. But if I'm a politician courting a popular vote, I would do much better to go to New York City and say, "I'm for giving more money to better roads and services," than to Kansas to say, "I'm for farm subsidies." Nobody in New York cares much about farm subsidies, but someone in Kansas might care about roads. How am I going to campaign?
So the Founders created an apportioned system to account for regional differences. Now a politician has to travel and pander -- I mean, court -- voters with many different issues. He, or she, has to build consensus. The candidate can't as easily write off the issues important to key, but dispersed, minorities.
If we went to a straight popular vote, the urban centers of New York City, Las Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore/Washington, Philadelphia, along with smaller, but important urban concentrations would dictate the winner of the next National election. New York City alone would outvote Maryland, Connecticut, and Rhode Island -- combined. BTW, Right now, these jurisdiction would vote Democratic. And the Red State vs. Blue State competition is why the key champions of a popular vote right now are Democratic. But while a popular vote would sew up the election for the Dem's in 2008 (Guess what: it's probably already sewn up, Dems! So chill out!), it is extremely short sighted if you take the view of keeping power decentralized.
Two states have approved a bill to do away with the Electoral College, Hawaii and Maryland. This is an effort to amend the US Constitution, until the conditions are met for the amendment, the approvals have no real effect. A third state legislature, California, put a bill before their governor, but he *ahem* terminated it with a veto.
The Founding Fathers recognized that those with power tend to work hard at accumulating more power. Hence the checks and balances. The politicians who passed these bills tend to be lawyers: they know the Constitution and understand it. But they are ignoring the wisdom of the document. When the Constitutional Convention ended, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the country had. Franklin told him solemnly, "A republic, if you can keep it."