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Q: What is the Electoral College?



A: More than two centuries ago, the founders crafted a compromise for the election of the nation’s chief executive. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, this was one of the stickiest issues to make its way through months of debate to create a government “of, by and for the people.” The 55 delegates needed to strike a balance between large and small states, satisfy regional differences and put checks on the nation’s commander-in-chief to avert imperialism that colonial America had triumphed over in the Revolutionary War. One of the compromises to emerge was the creation of the Electoral College. Since the first presidential election in 1789, America has elected our nation’s president under the system established in Article II, Section I of the Constitution.


Each state is assigned a number of presidential electors that matches the number of its congressional delegation. The Electoral College is comprised of 538 members. To win the presidency, a candidate needs a majority of 270 electoral votes. Every four years, when voters cast their ballots on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, they are voting for the electors chosen by the respective political parties in each state. The slate of presidential electors chosen is the one which receives the most votes in each state. The Constitution calls for the electors to meet in their respective states on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to vote for the candidates they represent. At that time, their job is done.


On Jan. 6 following the presidential election, a joint session of Congress meets to count the votes of the Electoral College. I’ve had the honor to participate in this solemn, constitutional responsibility 11 times since President Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. I take seriously my oath of office and Jan. 6, 2021 was no exception. The violence at the U.S. Capitol on that day was a dark day for America. Nonetheless, Congress upheld its constitutional duty to count the Electoral College votes and showed the world that America is still a shining city upon a hill. At the time of our nation’s founding, the norm in countries around the world was for a single individual to hold absolute power, including the ability to hold onto power. Our Constitution wisely limited and separated powers while baking in an automatic transfer of authority. This sacred heritage has been America’s gift to the world.  


Q: Why is the Electoral College important for less populous states like Iowa?


A: The United States was formed as a federation of former colonies that had become sovereign states. The framers of the Constitution separated power between three branches and two houses of Congress. The directly elected House of Representatives was intended to be the voice of the people. The Senate, with its longer, staggered terms was designed to cool the passions of the people at the moment by being more deliberative. The Executive was designed to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and the independent Judiciary to apply the law fairly outside of politics. The compromise forged more than 200 years ago creating the Electoral College was designed to provide a chief executive acceptable to most states, protect individual rights and strengthen our system of checks and balances. To this day, regional, political and ideological divides among the 50 states create competing priorities and policy objectives among more than 330 million Americans. The Electoral College serves a vital constitutional function to preserve the interests of less populated states. Without it, the very different way of life and needs of voters in rural states effectively would be ignored by a government focused on more populous states. On Jan. 6, I voted to reject efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election as certified by the states and affirmed by the courts. Our system of federalism defers to states’ sovereignty and their constitutional authority to hold elections. Rejecting votes of the Electoral College certified by a particular state would disenfranchise all voters in the entire state. In fact, I’ve opposed attempts to reject state-certified Electoral College votes after the 2000, 2004 and 2016 presidential elections. As Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator, I take seriously my fidelity to the Constitution. It’s a privilege to represent Iowans. Protecting the integrity of the Electoral College and preserving the sovereignty of the states to conduct, manage and make their own election laws are cornerstones of our constitutional republic. Limiting the power of a centralized government puts decision-making in the hands of citizen-neighbors at the local level to administer independent elections with integrity and transparency. Efforts to federalize U.S. elections infringe on the constitutional sovereignty of the states. Election laws are reserved to the states for good reason. The events of 2020, including the presidential election, underscore that public order and social cohesiveness demand faith and trust in the ballot box. It is sacrosanct to our system of self-government. The Electoral College helps preserve the heartbeat of our republic. It comes from the pulse of Americans in every state in the union, not only the most populous, and keeps check on the passions of the majority.  

Author: Charles Grassley

Chuck Grassley of New Hartford has represented Iowa in the United States Senate since 1980.


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