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The Electoral College: What's This All About?

Editor's note: In one sense, the following article by Mr. Colson is outdated. By the time this issue is printed and distributed, the issue of who will assume office as our next President will have been decided hopefully. However, because some noted political personalities have suggested the elimination of the Electoral College, we felt it would be beneficial to our readers to present Mr. Colson's observations from November 13 in the full context of the confusion following Election Day.

The scenes from Palm Beach, Florida — crowds protesting in the streets, banners waving, lawyers shouting — are beginning to look more like a banana republic than the world's most powerful nation. If this case is not quickly resolved, public confidence — a fragile thing at best — will be badly shaken.

Among the casualties of this mind-boggling situation could well be the Electoral College. Most citizens haven't a clue as to why we do not directly elect presidents, or how it is that a president could, as it appears in this case, narrowly win the popular vote but lose the Electoral vote. I've heard the Electoral College described repeatedly on TV as an "anachronism." And The New York Times op-ed Thursday advocated abolition.

But Americans need a civics lesson. This country was never intended to be direct democracy, nor was it intended that the president be elected by direct vote. And there was a very good reason for this, one that was greatly influenced by a Christian understanding of the form of government best reflecting biblical values.

At the beginning, the Founders believed that ordered liberty could best be achieved not by pure democracy but by a republican form of government. The people would choose leaders who would in turn rule over us. And, powers would be balanced between the states and the federal government. So, to make this work, the senators were to be appointed by the states, and electors would be elected who would in turn choose our president.

In a republican form of government, the senators and electors should be persons of noble character who can rise above the public passions of the moment and who act in the best interest of the nation.

The Founders recognized that often representatives would have to go against the popular tide. Our Founders, you see, recognized what Alexander Tytler later said - that democracies survive only until the voters discover that they can vote for themselves largesse from the public treasury. In this, the Founders were deeply influenced by the political understanding developed during the Protestant Reformation. Scottish cleric Samuel Rutherford wrote Lex Rex, the book that said, "the law is king," and enshrined the rule of law.

John Calvin believed in the total depravity of man. So, he argued not only against the "divine rule of kings," but also direct democracy; people, no less than kings, were predisposed to sin. He advocated a republican form of government with representatives chosen to lead for us — limited government, with powers balanced. This, he believed, would best meet biblical objectives.

Christians, of all people, need to understand this. And, we need to tell our neighbors why the Electoral College is still important. It is an essential ingredient in a republican form of government where states preserve their individual political identities and power. It is certainly not an anachronism. And we must not let the Electoral College be sacrificed in the backlash to this extraordinary election.

On a final note, I want to urge all Christians to pray fervently. It's imperative that cooler heads prevail in this crisis. If this election is not settled quickly, and if the demonstrations continue and anger increases, there's a risk that public confidence in the greatest experiment in liberty ever undertaken will be undermined. And that's a greater concern than the outcome of the election itself.

A postscript from Chuck Colson:

There are great risks in weakening the republican character of this government. Through the first 130 years of this nation, senators were chosen by state legislatures. When the Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913, making senators directly electable by the people, we turned senators into nothing more than representatives with longer terms and bigger egos. It may have seemed at the time like a victory for popular democracy. But I suspect it is no coincidence that the federal government began to expand dramatically — at the expense of the states — immediately after the amendment was passed.


Copyright 2000 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint with Chuck Colson is a radio ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

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January 2001 Edition
Volume 9, Issue 4
January 2001