The Electoral College: How It Got That Way and Why We're Stuck With It

So it has happened again. A close presidential election has led to recriminations, cries of fraud, and talk of tainted mandates. Just as predictably, the 2000 election has inspired calls to reform the Electoral College—predictably, that is, because such proposals have followed every close presidential contest since the beginning of the Republic. The only difference is that this time no one asked why there’s such a long delay between election and inauguration.

The controversy goes back to America’s first contested presidential election, in 1796, when John Adams edged Thomas Jefferson by three electoral votes. On January 6, 1797—a month before the votes would officially be counted, though the results had already been leaked—Rep. William L. Smith of South Carolina introduced the first constitutional amendment to reform the Electoral College. Between Smith’s initial sally and 1889, the centennial of the Constitution’s adoption, more than 160 such amendments were introduced in Congress. From 1889 through 1946 there were 109 proposed amendments, from 1947 to 1968 there were 265, and since then, virtually every session of Congress has seen its own batch of proposals. Still, the Electoral College simply refuses to die.

More constitutional amendments have been offered to reform our procedure for electing Presidents than for any other purpose. Statesmen from James Madison, Martin Van Buren, and Andrew Jackson to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Hillary Clinton have endorsed an overhaul of the process. Opinion polls consistently show a large, sometimes overwhelming margin in favor of reform. Nonetheless, with the exception of a small procedural change in 1804, the Electoral College functions under the same rules today as it did in the horse-and-buggy era of 1789, when it was adopted. What accounts for the remarkable resilience of such an unloved creation? And why can’t we get rid of it?

In brief, the Electoral College works as follows: On Election Day, citizens in the 50 states and the District of Columbia go to the polls and vote for a presidential/vice-presidential ticket. Within each state, the candidate who wins the most votes gets to appoint a certain number of presidential electors, the number being equal to that state’s total seats in the Senate and House of Representatives (the District of Columbia gets three). This winner-take-all feature, which has caused most of the trouble through the years, is not mandated by the Constitution, but it is virtually universal; only Maine and Nebraska have laws that provide for their electoral votes to be split. In fact, the Constitution permits states to choose their electors by any means they want, and in the early days many of them left the choice to their legislatures. Since the 1830s, however, winner-take-all popular elections have been all but obligatory.

On a specified date in December, the electors assemble in their states and go through the formality of casting their votes for the candidates from the party that appointed them. Each state reports its totals to Congress, and in early January the Vice President opens and counts the votes in the presence of both houses. Whichever candidates receive a majority of the electoral votes are declared President- and Vice President-elect.

If no candidate for President has a majority (this can happen if there is an exact tie or if more than two candidates receive votes), the House of Representatives chooses a President from among the top three electoral vote-getters. In this process, each state’s congressmen combine to cast one vote, regardless of the state’s size, and the House keeps on voting until someone receives a majority. Meanwhile, if no candidate for Vice President has a majority of the electoral votes, the Senate chooses between the top two electoral vote-getters. That’s more important than it sounds, because if the House remains unable to make a choice from among its three candidates, the Vice President serves as President.

The first question that naturally arises when one is confronted with such a convoluted system is: Where did it come from? Most of us know that the Electoral College was adopted by the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as a compromise between large and small states. The large states wanted presidential voting to be based on population, as in the House of Representatives, while the small states wanted each state to have the same number of votes, as in the Senate (and the Constitutional Convention itself, for that matter). So they split the difference by giving each state a number of electors equal to its combined total of seats in both houses of Congress.

That was one reason for the Electoral College, but far from the only one. From the start, almost everyone favored some sort of indirect process for choosing a President. Although a few delegates suggested a direct popular election, the states had different qualifications for voting, and those with tight requirements—ownership of a certain amount of property, for example—worried that they would be shortchanging themselves in a nationwide poll. In particular, the Southern states had a large group of residents who were automatically disqualified from voting: slaves. (Something similar might be said about women, of course, but they were not concentrated in any one section.)