What were they thinking when they created the Electoral College?

In the excellent Taming the Electoral College, Robert W. Bennett comments on the difficulty of ascertaining the “purpose” or “intention” behind any decision made by multiple people in the give-and-take of, say, a Constitutional Convention (Bennett 2006, 106). From a certain point of view, it’s simple: We needed a chief executive and a way to select that officer; the founders were all over the map between direct popular election and Congressional selection; a committee was formed to come up with something; and the Electoral College was what came out of the grinder.

Like some modern-day politicians, the Electoral College may have survived not by being everybody’s favorite idea, but by being a minimally acceptable second choice for most. That said, let’s review some of the commonly suggested reasons for the establishment of the Electoral College.

Creating a buffer between the people and the election of the chief executive. The founders were concerned about “mob rule” and demagoguery (Gregg 2007, 22). Some feared that a directly elected chief executive could run roughshod over the other branches of government by claiming a special mandate as the only official chosen by the entire country. In that context, indirect election through the Electoral College can be seen as a check on presidential supremacy.

Now, the original buffer was far buffier than most people realize. The Constitution didn’t even require electors to be directly chosen by the people—and it still doesn’t. The state legislatures have full power over how they assign electors. A legislature could constitutionally choose to pick the electors itself; let the governor appoint them; randomly call up electors as if for jury duty; or even hand out elector slots like Flaming Lips tickets to a radio show’s first 10 callers.

In the first election in 1789, the majority of states used legislative selection, not the popular vote, to choose electors. Although most states had moved to statewide popular votes by the 1830s, the South Carolina legislature handpicked electors as late as 1860 (Gregg 2007, 31).

Of course, the popular election of pledged electors is now long established in the laws of every state. But legislative selection is still constitutional and was floated as a Republican workaround during the 2000 Florida vote-counting debacle. That idea was mooted by the Supreme Court’s intercession.

Avoiding the logistical nightmare of a national mass election. This may have been a valid concern in 1787, but in the modern era we’ve long had elections from coast to coast on a common Election Day, and have most results within a day or so.

Still, one serious concern under this category is the use in some states of electronic voting systems with no paper trail. If we’re going to federalize our elections we need federal standards, starting with a ban on unauditable paperless voting.

Meanwhile, some say the Electoral College has the positive effect of compartmentalizing such issues to individual states, while others argue that the “winner-take-all” system only magnifies the effects of election fraud. I suspect it depends on the particular math of a given election. Any mathematicians want to weigh in on this?

Creating a forum for learned deliberation over the choice of president. Um, yeah, this one didn’t last long. Alexander Hamilton had propagated this idea in Federalist 68:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.

Seeing as the electors are constitutionally bound to meet on the same day but in their separate states, there’s simply no opportunity for live deliberation to occur in the Electoral College as a whole body. Election requires an absolute majority of electoral votes, not just a plurality in a multi-candidate race; Thus, once George Washington left the scene and rival factions first started jockeying for the presidency, the electors had to have some sort of prior communication to winnow the candidates to the point where that majority was even possible. And since everyone was still on dial-up, that was really slow.

So a shortcut to that electoral majority was bound to develop. In the first post-Washington election in 1796, a new species evolved: the pledged elector, who is chosen based on the promise to vote for a particular ticket.

The pledged elector, now the universal norm, is chosen explicitly to not deliberate. On the contrary, she is expected to have made her choice in advance and to defy any attempts at persuasion or other inducement.

Thus, the deliberative role for the elector is long gone. I’d argue that this has dramatically democratized the system. Your vote now counts toward your candidate’s victory, if only in our abstracted American way.

Cementing the role of the states in our federalist structure. The United States of America is by definition an association of interdependent states. The Electoral College structure is said to honor that paradigm by ensuring that candidates will campaign by state rather than to an amorphous national mass of Americans.

The general-ticket system, or “winner-take-all,” also bolsters the importance of states as units.

Protecting the interests of small states. In the Electoral College, each state has representation equal to its total representation in the House and Senate. So every state, no matter how sparsely populated, gets at least 3 electoral votes. This gives the small states more proportional weight in choosing the president than larger states, theoretically protecting them from being steamrolled in the process.

This was part of the package of compromises—also including the separation of powers, the distinct structures of the Senate and House, and other features of the Constitution—that are intended to balance large states and small states; democracy and representation; each state’s interests and the United States’ interests.

Of course, another major factor in the drive to embed the system with structural protections for states (or, more precisely, for the ruling classes in certain states) was the “institution” of slavery. I can’t do justice to that topic here, but will write a much more substantial piece on that in the future.

I hope this helps to illuminate some of the reasons for the Electoral College system. I welcome your comments.

Reference

Bennett, Robert W. 2006. Taming the Electoral College. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.

Gregg, Gary L. II (ed.). 2007. Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books.

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