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The founding of the Electoral College

Every four years, the debate over the United States’ continued use of its Electoral College reemerges. This process to select the President of the United States and Vice President of the United States was established by the Founding Fathers and was a crucial aspect of the Constitution. The following excerpt from Michael Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution discusses the political interests that shaped the Electoral College and American presidential politics as a whole:

Late in the convention, a grand committee appointed to tackle various unresolved issues endorsed a proposal first made by Wilson, which the convention had already rejected on multiple occasions: The president would be chosen by special electors, whose appointment would be made according to a method specified by state legislatures. Because the body of electors would have no perpetual life, it would have no particular interests to defend. A president selected in this fashion would not be dependent upon the institution selecting him.

Moreover, the electors would presumably be prominent people of superior knowledge and independence. This is what inclined the delegates to consider entrusting them with a task as important as choosing the president (although dissenting delegates denied that “first characters” or “the most respectable citizens” would be interested in holding a transitory position such as that of presidential elector). The report of the Committee on Unfinished Parts also specified that electors would cast ballots in their home states in order to preclude, in Morris’s words, “the great evil of cabal.” Requiring that electors in the different states meet simultaneously throughout the country made it “impossible to corrupt them.” Moreover, the use of electors in place of direct popular election obviated the problem of slaves counting for nothing, which would have been disqualifying from the southerners’ perspective. The electoral college system was ingenious, though Caleb Strong objected that it would “make the government too complex.”

The issue of how to apportion presidential electors naturally provoked disagreement between delegations from large and small states. When the issue was discussed earlier in the convention, at a time when the delegates were considering an electoral college system for choosing the president, small-state delegates had favored a relatively flat distribution, in which the small states received one elector and no large state more than three. Unsurprisingly, large-state delegates had thought their states deserved even greater influence in choosing the president. Connecticut delegate Ellsworth objected to giving large states extra clout in the electoral college, which he said their citizens would probably use simply to prefer candidates from their own states.

State-by-state breakdown of the 2016 Electoral College. Image credit: “Electoral College 2016” by Cg-realms. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The grand committee’s report proposed a compromise on the apportionment of the electoral college: Each state’s number of presidential electors would equal its number of congressional representatives plus its two senators. Small states would fare better than if the apportionment had been based strictly upon population, yet large states still derived a substantial advantage from their greater populations, as reflected in their number of congressional representatives. Thus, for example, Virginia would outnumber Delaware by ten to one in the first House but only by twelve to three in the first electoral college. Because the number of electors depended partly on a state’s number of congressional representatives, the power of southern states in the electoral college would reflect their slave populations.

In addition, the committee proposed that no candidate could be elected president without securing the votes of a majority of the electors appointed. If no candidate received such a majority, then the Senate would choose the president from among the top five vote getters. Convention delegates mostly assumed that presidential candidates would rarely win outright majorities in the electoral college—at least once Washington had ceased to be a candidate. The vast geographic scope of the country, combined with the relatively primitive state of transportation and communication, would prevent presidential candidates from becoming widely known or coordinating their campaigns across states—especially in the absence of national political parties, which the delegates did not assume would exist. Thus, Charles Pinckney protested that the electors would “not have sufficient knowledge of the fittest men and will be swayed by an attachment to the eminent men of their respective states,” and Mason predicted that “nineteen times in twenty the president would be chosen by the Senate…”

Accordingly, some large-state delegates objected to the committee’s proposal and suggested eliminating the requirement that a presidential candidate receive the votes of a majority of the electors in order to be elected. Yet small-state delegates naturally resisted a proposal that would have ordinarily allowed the electors from just a few of the large states to pick the president by themselves, and it was easily defeated. The convention then also rejected a motion by Madison to substitute “one-third” for “a majority” as the requirement for the candidate winning the most votes in the electoral college to be elected president.

State-by-state results from the 2012 US Presidential Election. Image credit: “Electoral college map for the 2012 United States presidential election” by Gage. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As just noted, according to the committee’s proposal, the Senate’s choice would be made from among the top five vote getters in the electoral college. The number five was a compromise between the preference of a large-state delegate such as Mason, who suggested limiting the list to three, and that of a small-state delegate such as Sherman, who would have preferred expanding it to seven or even thirteen candidates. Madison expressed concern that if the president were to be chosen from a list as long as even five vote getters, “the attention of the electors would be turned too much to making candidates instead of giving their votes in order to [make] a definitive choice.”

Several delegates objected to the Senate’s being made the de facto selector of the president on the grounds that, under the committee proposal, the Senate and the executive were also now slated to jointly exercise the powers of appointment and treaty making. For example, Wilson protested that if the Senate were to make the ultimate choice of the president, he “will not be the man of the people as he ought to be, but the minion of the Senate.” Mason warned that “if a coalition should be established between these two branches, they will be able to subvert the Constitution.” Williamson objected that referring the appointment of the president to the Senate “lays a certain foundation for corruption and aristocracy”—a view with which Randolph concurred…

Thus, Wilson and other large-state delegates proposed that “the legislature” rather than just the Senate choose the president from among the top vote getters when no candidate received the votes of a majority of the appointed electors. Sherman suggested that the House—rather than the Senate alone or both houses of Congress together—should choose the president in such situations. Because Sherman proposed that the House, when selecting the president, vote by delegation rather than as individual representatives, small-state influence would be preserved, while “the aristocratic influence of the Senate” would be eliminated. The convention then overwhelmingly approved the substitution of the House for the Senate. Madison later explained that, in addition to other considerations, the House was thought safer “on account of the greater number of its members,” which would “present greater obstacles to corruption than the Senate with its paucity of members.”

Featured image credit: “White House” by Diego Cambiaso. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. otto

    The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in the country


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