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To be honest, I think its a rule that is just set and there is not much of a strict reasoning behind it. I think that in the case of sulfate, having the S in the center allows for symmetry for the Lewis structure, as it would be difficult is putting 4 oxygens in the center. So, symmetry is a valid reasoning I believe for having the element with lowest ionization energy in the center, especially in this circumstance.
Like Sammy said, putting the atom with lowest ionization energy makes it easier to draw a symmetrical molecule, but I also I think since the atom in the center has the lowest ionization energy of all atoms in the molecule, it would be easier for that electron to share the e- because there is a smaller amount of ionization energy that is needed to be over come in order for that e- to be shared.
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