Courtesy of Kasey Ashford

Two law professors debated the merits of the Electoral College and it's place in today's world.

February 22, 2018

Professors Debate the Efficacy and Origins of the Electoral College

Print More

Two law professors squared off to debate whether the Electoral College, the elected body that chooses the American president, should continue to exist.

The event, hosted by the Cornell Law School Federalist Society and the Cornell law student chapter of the American Constitution Society, featured Prof. Richard Duncan J.D. ’76, law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Prof. Robert Hockett, law.

Rebecca Duncan grad, 3L representative and former president of the Cornell Law School Federalist Society, told The Sun that debates like the one held on Tuesday are aimed at encouraging “hopefully intelligent, well thought-out discussion on both sides of currently relevant issues.”

Duncan and Hockett offered differing interpretations of the Electoral College’s impacts on the power of states.

Duncan argued that the Electoral College was developed in light of the need for a “structural self-defense mechanism” for small-population states that feared political domination by larger states.

At the basis of the Electoral College, each state receives a number of electoral votes based on its combined number of senators and representatives, Duncan noted. However, in cases where no single candidate wins enough electoral votes to claim the presidency, the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to decide the election, allotting one vote to each state’s delegation.

“State equality, one state one vote, was the goal of the small states,” he said.

Hockett contributed an alternative perspective, arguing that key founders Alexander Hamilton and James Madison intended for the president to be elected by, and to represent, all of the American people instead of the states. He said their view was largely due to the concept that “the president was meant to … act on behalf of the entirety of the American population, not on behalf of states.”

Hockett also said that small states, and the power of states, are not necessarily protected by the Electoral College today. Citing the Trump campaign’s strategic focus on swing states, he said candidates generally pay more attention to these states, regardless of their size.

“The Electoral College as we have it now … works in a manner that basically gets the candidates to spend a great deal, certainly disproportionate time, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in Florida, maybe in Colorado,” he said. “There’s really not that much need to pay that much attention to, or spend that much time, in other states, be they small or large, be they generally Republican or generally Democrat[ic].”

Duncan, however, argued that the Electoral College ensures that presidential candidates have to seek a “multi-regional consensus” that considers a diversity of viewpoints and values.

“Small-population states and flyover country would be crazy to submit to a national government dominated by large population centers in a handful of states,” Duncan added.

Hockett countered that this outcome might not necessarily be harmful.

“I think it’s worth keeping in mind … that a synonym for a large population center is a place where there are a lot of Americans,” he said. “It seems to me that’s kind of a good thing, to try to get the votes of a lot of Americans.”

Duncan argued that if a convention were to be held this year to draft a new constitution, while it might be difficult to put the country back together, any agreement reached would likely look similar to the compromise that created the Electoral College.

“Even setting aside hot-button issues … it is not clear that all 50 states today could agree to a plan about the structure of the national government … but if a compromise acceptable for ratification by all 50 states could be worked out at the Constitutional Convention of 2018, it would probably look an awful lot like the Great Compromise of 1789,” he said.