This is the time in the American election cycle when much ink is spilled on that peculiar American institution known as the Electoral College.The debate has become quite stale and predictable: Reformers (mostly on the left) argue that the college is an antiquated relic of the horse-and-buggy era that offends a basic principle of democracy. Defenders of the status quo (mostly on the right) counter that the current electoral system has certain practical benefits. Both sides miss the point completely, as they both ignore what the Founders had in mind for the college when they wrote the Constitution. Moreover, reconsidering the Founders’ vision could provide the basis for a solution to the problem that would satisfy everyone. The Current System Article II, Section I of the Constitution stipulates that the President is to be elected by “electors” who are chosen by the states in whatever manner the state legislatures direct. The number of electors allocated to each state is equal to the total of representatives in both houses of Congress. Today, all states have what might be called a “multiple slate” system—that is, voters vote not for candidates themselves but for their respective slates of electors. For instance, if you’re an Alabama voter, when you go to your polling place and vote for, say, Barack Obama, you’re not voting for Obama himself; you’re voting for nine individuals (the number of Alabama’s representatives in both houses of Congress) who have promised to vote for Obama in the Electoral College. If you vote for Mitt Romney, you’re really voting for Romney’s slate of electors who have pledged to vote for him. If more people vote for Obama’s slate, then Obama’s slate of electors is admitted to the Electoral College, while Romney’s slate is shut out completely. (Two states, Maine and Nebraska, divide themselves into districts, but voters still vote for candidates’ slates of electors rather than the candidates themselves.) Who are these electors? They are usually state party operatives chosen by party leaders as a reward for their loyalty and service. Their votes are virtually certain—“faithless electors” are extremely rare—which means that the votes that electors cast are a mere formality, for the outcome of the election has already been decided. Furthermore, because voters are voting for slates of electors, the electoral count amounts to a “points” system: If a candidate wins California, for instance, he gets 55 “points.” The only way that the electors’ votes could truly be called votes and not points is if electors were expected to use their independent judgment. Thus, this points system is merely an alternative way of counting the popular vote. The Electoral College at the Constitutional Convention How did it come to be this way? Is this multiple-slate system what the Founders had in mind when they enshrined the Electoral College in the Constitution? The answer is an emphatic no. There was much debate at the Constitutional Convention about how the new nation was to elect its chief executive. Victoria Bassetti, in her new book Electoral Dysfunction, claims that the Founders wanted to insulate the election of the chief magistrate from “an uninformed, inflamed electorate” and were “profoundly distrustful of the seething mass of voters” (p. 88). This is patently false. There is no indication from the accounts of the convention that the delegates distrusted the voters at large with electing the President. In fact, Bassetti contradicts herself on the very next page (p. 89) by pointing out that the Founders’ fears “were not specifically about an uncontrollable mass of wild voters.… They did not doubt voters could be intelligent.” In truth, popular election of the President was seriously considered, but the main objection was a practical one: The Founders worried that the American people, being largely agrarian and not steeped in politics, would naturally gravitate toward local politicians with whom they were most familiar. Thus candidates from larger states would have an advantage over those from smaller ones. There was also the issue of slavery artificially inflating the populations of slave states. Some delegates thought Congress should elect the President, but this idea had its own problems: It would invite intrigue and corruption, making the President merely a puppet of Congress. The two factions went back and forth, with no consensus emerging for either choice. A third option, selecting the President by means of appointed “electors”, started to gain traction. James Madison notes that the option “seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.” It was agreed to, and the Electoral College was born. Later, while pitching the Constitution to the states for ratification, the Founders realized that, like Congress, the Electoral College served to temper the transitory passions of the people. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton writes that electors “will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.” A Temporary Legislature In contrast to today’s presidential electors—who are mere automata, mindlessly casting their ballots as directed by their party leaders—it is clear that the Founders intended electors to be freely thinking beings making rational decisions. The Electoral College itself was to be a temporary legislature, a deliberative body convened to make one and only one legislative act: to choose the nation’s chief executive. Hamilton explains in Federalist 68 that these electors were to be 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. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. [emphasis added] Hamilton’s understanding was corroborated by others of the period. Representative John Clopton of Virginia wrote in 1803 that “the electors are the organs who, acting from a certain and unquestioned knowledge of the choice of the people, by whom they themselves were appointed, and under immediate responsibility to them, select and announce those particular citizens [who bear the stamp of public confidence], and affix to them by their votes an evidence of the degree of public confidence that is bestowed upon them.”1 The Senate reported in 1826: It was the intention of the Constitution that these electors should be an independent body of men, chosen by the people from among themselves, on account of their superior discernment, virtue, and information; and that this body should be left to make the election according to their own will, without the slightest control from the body of the people.2 The Aurora newspaper advised in 1796 that “the electors must become acquainted with the sentiments of their constituents, and the people come to a knowledge of the opinions of the electoral candidates. . . . Let the people then choose their electors with a view to the ultimate choice.”3 The Founders were smart men. If they had imagined the role of presidential elector to be only a ceremonial post—if they had envisioned electors as mere automata—they would have seen the needlessness of electors and awarded points to presidential candidates automatically based on the popular vote in the states. A Crucial Mistake The delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided to leave the precise method of selecting electors to each state’s discretion. This proved to be a crucial mistake. In the first few presidential elections, most state legislatures used their prerogative to select the electors themselves. Gradually, as the press for democratizing the process grew, more states opted for popular election of the electors. Importantly, it is unclear at what point voters began voting for slates of electors rather than electors themselves. As early as the election of 1789, several states employed “popular” selection of electors, but historians make no distinction between “popular election” whereby voters voted for slates of electors who were pledged to a particular candidate (the method used by all states today) and “popular election” of electors whereby voters elected unpledged electors from a single slate. No one seems to know exactly when the multiple-slate system made its debut.4 In any case, the multiple-slate method became the preferred choice, as it allowed state legislators to maintain the appearance of democracy while delivering all of the state’s electoral votes to the winning party and depriving the minority of any voice in the outcome of the election. Once some states implemented this method, other states felt pressure to follow suit so they could retain as much clout as possible. Modern Critiques and Defenses Conservative defenses of the Electoral College focus on the practical advantages of the current system: for instance, that it discourages splinter parties and confines recounts to small geographical areas. But they fail to recognize the disparity between the Founders’ original vision and the modern multiple-slate system. In her book Enlightened Democracy, Tara Ross asserts that “America’s method of presidential election remains largely as it was first conceived by the Founders in the summer of 1787” (p. 29). This statement would startle Hamilton, Clopton, and others of the period. As early as 1816, Rufus King, a delegate to the convention, lamented that “the election of a President of the United States is no longer that process which the Constitution contemplated.”5 One would think that conservatives’ instinct to defend anything the Founders did would lead them to criticize the multiple-slate system. Instead, they go in the opposite direction. Ross argues for keeping the Electoral College but eliminating the office of elector altogether (p. 121), which would push the college even further from what was originally intended. Liberals, for their part, acknowledge that the Electoral College was supposed to be a deliberative body. But they ignore this concept when attacking the current system, which they say violates the sacred principle of “one person, one vote.” They fail to consider that the original Electoral College was never intended to embody this principle in the first place, nor is there any consideration that the original idea had any merit at all. This failure to see advantages in intermediate electors has spawned an effort to create a de facto popular vote. The National Popular Vote is a pledge whereby states promise to award their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. So far, eight states and the District of Columbia, representing 132 electoral votes, have signed on. The pact goes into effect only when at least 270 electoral votes are represented by states that have signed on. Such an end-run around the Electoral College would remove the institution even farther from the Founders’ original vision. A Solution at Hand The truth about the Electoral College is that the version envisioned by the Founders never really existed. Because it was a novel concept, the framers did not have the benefit of history to show them how it played out in practice. It turned out that state party leaders took advantage of the Founders’ carte blanche to satisfy their own partisan interests, bastardizing the entire concept in the process. It’s still possible to reform the Electoral College in a way that restores it to the Founders’ original intention and gives both sides what they want. What would this reform look like? It would have to be implemented at the state level—since a constitutional amendment would be nearly impossible—so solutions would necessarily differ from state to state. But its essence would be this: Voters would vote for electors, not slates of electors. Electoral candidates would not be formally pledged to any presidential candidates; in fact, the names of the presidential candidates and their parties would not even appear on the ballot. Such a reform is something that, at least in theory, all sides should be willing to get behind. It would give citizens’ votes even more bang for the buck—especially if states awarded electors by district—while preserving the practical advantages of the status quo. Regardless, any reform of the Electoral College should begin with a serious consideration of the Founders’ original intention. 1Quoted in Lucius Wilmerding, The Electoral College (Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 22. 2Register of Debates, January 19, 1826, appendix, p. 121. See Wilmerding, p. 171. 3Quoted in Charles A. O’Neil, The American Electoral System (New York, 1887), pp. 55–6. 4Even phone calls to the state boards of elections in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia turned up fruitless. 5Quoted in Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, The Founders’ Constitution (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 555.
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Published on: October 17, 2012The Electoral College: How Both Sides Miss the Point