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

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During the ratification debate, the Electoral College inspired remarkably little controversy. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 68, “The mode of appointment of the chief magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system [i.e., of the entire proposed Constitution], of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.” Sure enough, the first two presidential elections went more or less as expected. Every elector used one of his votes for a figure of national prominence (in this case George Washington, though it was not expected that there would always be such an overwhelmingly obvious choice), and the second votes were scattered among a wide variety of local and national figures. In both elections, John Adams won the second-highest number of votes and thus the dubious honor of the Vice Presidency.

Even while Washington was in office, however, a change occurred that made a mockery of the framers’ vision of disinterested wise men carefully weighing the merits of the nominees. This was the development of political parties. Madison, in his classic Federalist No. 10, had praised the Constitution’s “tendency to break and control the violence of faction,” predicting that in a country as large and diverse as the United States, nationwide factions, or parties, were unlikely to form. Yet all theory went out the window almost as soon as the First Congress assembled. What Madison and his fellow framers did not realize was that the very existence of a government makes people align themselves one way or another, pro or con, like iron filings under the influence of a magnet. Any time you have ins, you will also have outs, and parties will form spontaneously around these two poles.

In recognition of this reality, the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, imposed the only major change that the Electoral College has ever seen. By then the failure of the founders’ vision was clear; in 1796 and 1800 electors had run as Adams men or Jefferson men, instead of standing on their own merits, as had been expected. Yet although the notion of a presidential/vice-presidential ticket had developed, electors still had to put two names on their ballots, both officially candidates for President.

In 1800 the duo of Jefferson and Aaron Burr won the election with 73 electoral votes against 65 for the Adams ticket. The trouble was that Jefferson and Burr each received exactly 73 votes, because every Jefferson elector had named both men on his ballot. The election went to the House of Representatives, where Jefferson’s opponents managed to forestall a majority until they finally yielded on the thirty-sixth ballot. (In this case, the House was restricted to breaking the tie between Jefferson and Burr rather than choosing from the top five vote-getters, as it would have done if no one had gotten a majority.)

To avoid a repetition of such a fiasco, the Twelfth Amendment required electors to specify separate candidates for President and Vice President. (A similar plan had been the subject of Representative Smith’s 1797 proposal.) Outside of this change, however, the rest of the Electoral College was left in place. Most Americans saw no need to open a can of worms by designing a new procedure from scratch.

After the excitement in 1800, the next five elections saw little controversy, with 1812 the only one that was at all close. Still, the inadequacies of the Electoral College—even in its new, improved form—were manifest. As Adams’s old Federalist party dissolved and new factions started to crystallize, the 1824 election promised to be splintered, and some observers wondered if the Constitution’s creaky old machinery would be up to the task. In 1823 Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri wrote: “Every reason which induced the convention to institute Electors has failed. They are no longer of any use, and may be dangerous to the liberties of the people.” That same year, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, candidly admitted the failure of his beloved progeny and suggested dividing the states into districts and having each district choose its own elector.

In fact, the 1824 election worked closest to what the framers had in mind, and it was a God-awful mess. Four candidates—Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay—received electoral votes, with none having a majority. Three New York electors who were supposedly pledged to Clay voted for other candidates, while two Clay supporters in the Louisiana legislature were unable to vote for electors after falling from their carriage on the way to the capital. This combination of treachery and bad luck bumped Clay down to fourth place, eliminating him from the balloting in the House, of which he was the Speaker.

At this point the normally fastidious Adams, who had finished second to Jackson in the electoral vote, put aside his scruples and began making deals for all he was worth. Adams won the House vote on the first ballot by a bare majority and immediately made Clay—whose support had swung Kentucky’s House delegation into the Adams column, though the citizens of that state had chosen Jackson—his Secretary of State. This led many to accuse the two men of a “corrupt bargain.”