Domestic Affairs

A History of the Electoral College, 1787 – Today

After a long and arduous campaign that culminated in a drawn-out vote-counting process, Joe Biden earned the title of President-Elect on November 7th after multiple networks projected a Biden victory in Pennsylvania. With over 80 million votes nationwide, more people cast their ballot for Biden than any other candidate in history. But the election is not officially over. The winner will not be formally chosen until the second round of voting takes place on December 14th. Except, in that election, the only people eligible to vote are the 538 electors chosen to make up the Electoral College — America’s peculiar system for selecting the president. 

In the Electoral College, each state, plus Washington D.C., is awarded votes that correspond to the number of members in its congressional delegation. To become president, a candidate must win enough states to earn at least 270 electoral votes. While the Electoral College victor usually also secures a popular vote majority, this is not always the case. In fact, a split between the Electoral College and popular vote outcome occurred in two of the past five presidential elections to the consternation of many.

Opponents of the Electoral College label the system as fundamentally unfair or even undemocratic. “I believe very simply that the person with the most votes should be the President of the United States,” Senator Cory Booker asserted during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

Those in favor of the Electoral College, however, see attempts to do away with it as repudiations of the Constitution. An editorial defending the Electoral College by historian Allen Guelzo argued that it “is neither antiquated nor toxic; it is an underappreciated institution that helps preserve our constitutional system, and it deserves a full-throated defense.” Republican Senator Mike Lee echoed a similar sentiment in a tweet. Responding to the notion that political power should reflect majority interests, he bluntly insisted that “we are not a democracy.”

The sentiment that Republicans carefully guard the Constitution while Democrats prioritize progress, even if it means abandoning the ideas of the founders, is a familiar one. Conservative jurisprudence rests on the same doctrine. However, such claims deserve careful examination. Are Electoral College defenders actually preserving the wishes of America’s founders? Looking back to Philadelphia in the year 1787 suggests that the debate about the Electoral College is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

The Electoral College at the Constitutional Convention

Crafting the executive branch proved to be a difficult task for the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. Unlike Congress, which the framers could model after foreign legislative systems, the Executive Branch represented a uniquely difficult endeavor. Texas A&M political scientist, George C. Edwards III, notes in the book Why the Electoral College is Bad for America that delegates at the Constitutional Convention voted a staggering 30 times on various methods of selection.

The decision regarding what electoral system to use was so contentious that a subgroup of 11 delegates called the “Grand Committee on Postponed Questions” was left with the task of coming up with a workable solution. Their creation, the Electoral College, became the final addendum to the final draft of the Constitution. 

After a prolonged and heated discussion, many of the founders determined that the Electoral College was the best of the available options. According to Robert M. Alexander, author of Representation and the Electoral College, other proposals for presidential selection included using the popular vote or delegating the task to Congress, but these were ultimately rejected for a variety of reasons. The popular vote had some supporters, such as James Madison, but others questioned whether the public would have the necessary information available to make well-informed choices. And many delegates believed that handing the decision to Congress would threaten the independence of the executive branch.

By using electors, instead of the public or a permanent political body, the framers believed that the Electoral College would serve as a buffer between the people and the government. Alexander wrote that the framers presumed that “the electors were to be chosen from among society’s most distinguished citizens.” Commenting on the benefits of this type of system, Madison argued in Federalist 10 “that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for that purpose.” Put simply, electors would be a more trustworthy group than the public as a whole.

The key feature underpinning such a system was electoral independence. Nowhere in the Constitution did it mandate electors to vote in specific ways. Electors were free to support any candidate they please, including those who did not campaign for the job. In other words, without electoral independence, one of the most alluring features of the Electoral College at the time of its creation would be lost.

However, other rationales also explain why the convention’s delegates settled on the Electoral College. For example, some members of the Constitutional Convention believed the Electoral College would protect state interests. The delegates knew that at least nine of the 13 states needed to ratify the Constitution that they were set to write, so they needed to formulate a compromise which would earn broad support across state legislative bodies. 

This dynamic explains why the Constitution gave state legislatures, rather than the public, the power to appoint electors. Additionally, delegates from small and southern states were able to effectively leverage their political power at the convention to block proposals that they believed were contrary to their state’s interests.

In the end, Edwards writes in his book, “the Electoral College was not the result of a coherent design based on clear political principles, but, rather, a complex compromise that reflected the interests of different states and the search for consensus.” There was never a unified philosophical vision that guided the creation of the Electoral College. The institution was born out of the specific political conditions of the time — conditions that have changed since the convention closed its doors.

Evolution After Ratification

For all the work done at the Constitutional Convention, the Electoral College still required refinement. The first major change occurred after only a few presidential elections. In 1804, Congress ratified the 12th Amendment which adjusted the process of vice presidential selection, given the rise of party tickets. But this was just the first in a long series of efforts to change the system. 

Even though the abolition of the Electoral College appears unlikely today, a constitutional amendment to abandon the system nearly succeeded in 1969 when a bipartisan group of politicians, including the presidential nominees from both major parties, got behind the effort. Although this and all other attempts aiming to abolish the Electoral College have failed, more subtle reforms have met success. And over time, due to various modifications and evolving circumstances, the Electoral College as we know it today has drifted from the ideas which led to the institution’s conception. 

As noted previously, the delegates to the convention originally praised the Electoral College for allowing electors to act independently, but politicians quickly came to see independent-minded electors as a nuisance, adorning them with the unfavorable label of “faithless electors.” The rising status of political parties meant states sought electors based on loyalty, not independent distinction. Supreme Court decisions have since codified a loyalty-based interpretation of the role of electors. In the 1952 case, Ray v. Blaire, the court ruled that states are allowed to require electors to pledge their votes to the party-endorsed candidate. And last year in Chiafalo v. Washington, the court unanimously found that states may punish electors who don’t vote for their pledged candidate. Based on these decisions, the once-cherished electoral independence has become a relic of the past.

Similarly, the link tying the Electoral College to state interests has almost entirely dissipated. Originally, the Constitution gave state legislatures the authority to select electors, but by 1796, the majority of states had already transferred this right directly to the people. Although elector names don’t appear on individual ballots, when voting for a presidential candidate, we are actually selecting which party’s electors we support; then, the electors for the candidate that receives the most votes are chosen for the Electoral College.

By all accounts, the current Electoral College is a different institution than the proposal crafted at the convention.

Conclusion

Ever since the Constitution’s ratification, the U.S. has used the Electoral College to pick the president. Fifty-eight elections and 45 presidents later, and we are still wrestling over its efficacy. The history of the Electoral College shows that we have never had an unwavering commitment to it as an institution. At its founding, the debate was fierce, and the Electoral College became a last-minute addition. Since then, the Electoral College has evolved so that it no longer represents the founders’ original vision for presidential selection.

So, should we abandon the Electoral College? 

The answer to this question can still be debated, but choosing to adopt an alternative system would not, as some people seem to think, deliver a death-blow to the Constitution or our founding principles because the current Electoral College hardly resembles the system that the framers settled on in the summer of 1787.

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