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

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For purposes of allotting seats in the House of Representatives, the framers finessed this problem by counting each slave as three-fifths of a person. To retain the same measure of influence in a nationwide popular election, though, the South would have had to let its slaves vote. That, obviously, was out of the question. But with the Electoral College acting as an intermediary, the Southern states retained these “extra” votes based on their slave population. If not for the three-fifths rule, Adams would have defeated Jefferson in their 1800 election squeaker.

Slavery aside, there were other reasons the framers settled on an indirect scheme for choosing a President. Few of them thought the general public would be competent to make such a choice. George Mason of Virginia was particularly scathing in his denunciation of popular election. As summarized in Madison’s notes, “He conceived it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.” This remark sounds supercilious until you read the next sentence: “The extent of the Country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates.”

In a country without nationwide media, where traveling 20 miles was an arduous undertaking, this concern made ample sense. Even nowadays, how many Americans can name the governors of more than two or three states besides their own? Or consider the most recent election. Without television, would you have known any more about the Vice President than you know about the Secretary of Commerce? The world of the average eighteenth-century American was parochial to an extent that is unimaginable in the information age. To most of the framers, a popular vote for President would have been about as useful as drawing names from a hat.

The most important point to understand about the Electoral College is this: The Constitution’s framers never actually expected it to choose the President. George Mason of Virginia thought the electors would give a majority to a single candidate only once in 20 times.

With this in mind, the framers thought of the Electoral College not as a formality to ratify the popular will, as it is now, but as an assembly of respected figures (not unlike themselves) who would exercise their judgment to bring forth deserving candidates for the nation’s highest office. At one point, in fact, the Constitutional Convention considered a plan to have electors from across the country meet in a single place and hash things out as a body.

Also noteworthy is that in the original version of the Electoral College, electors did not specify one candidate for President and one for Vice President, as they do today. Instead, they put on their ballots two names for President, at least one of which had to be from outside their state. In this way, the framers thought, the electors could satisfy their local loyalties with one vote and use the other to recognize a man of national prominence. Under this system, if the first-place finisher was named on a majority of ballots, he would become President, and the second-place finisher—regardless of whether he was named on a majority of ballots—would become Vice President.

But that wasn’t supposed to happen very often. The most important point to understand about the Electoral College is this: The Constitution’s framers never actually expected it to choose the President. George Mason of Virginia thought the electors would give a majority to a single candidate only once in 20 times; later he amended this figure to 1 in 50. That’s how rarely most of the framers thought anyone would be well known and well respected enough across the country.

Almost always, they expected, the Electoral College would serve as a nominating committee, winnowing a large body of candidates down to the top five vote-getters (reduced to three in 1804), from whom the House of Representatives would make the final choice. The framers, then, saw the Electoral College chiefly as a mechanism for bringing candidates to nationwide prominence. It sounds very cumbersome and inefficient until you look at how we do the same thing today.

This explains why the Constitutional Convention spent so much time debating which house of Congress would choose the President if no one had an Electoral College majority. Nowadays that’s an afterthought, something that hasn’t happened since 1824, but the framers expected it to be the normal course of events. After considerable discussion, the final choice was given to the House, rather than the presumably aristocratic Senate. To appease the small states, though, each state was given a single vote without regard to its size.