What's The Electoral College and Why Do We Have It?

September 8, 2016

 

The Electoral College is what we call the group of people who actually choose the President of the United States. The presidential election every four years really involves two elections. In the first election, voters in each state vote for electors who have pledged to vote for a particular presidential candidate. In the second election, the electors who were chosen in each state actually vote for president.

 

Why do we have the Electoral College? Because that's the method the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 decided on for electing the president. 

 

As author David Stewart describes in his excellent book, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, no issue gave the convention more difficulty than the question of how to choose the president. There were a number of reasons for that, including the tension between large states and small states that influenced many of the decisions at the convention. But one big reason was that everyone in the room knew that George Washington would be the first president. Some delegates didn’t want to say things about the presidency that might offend Washington. Others probably couldn't imagine the job with anyone other than Washington.

 

Numerous plans for selecting the president were suggested, some of them preposterous, including one that suggested dividing the country into three regions with one executive for each region, and together they would govern as a three-person executive committee. Basically the plans boiled down into one of these two alternatives. Either Congress selected the president, or the people elected the president directly.

 

The problem with having Congress elect the president, many delegates thought, was that the president might become a tool of the legislature and pander to the members of Congress to get and keep the job. The idea of Congress picking the president was contrary to the principle of separation of powers that was important to the constitution's overall structure.

 

As to having the people elect the president directly, the smaller states didn’t like it. They believed that people from the larger, more populous states would dominate the elections. This was particularly true in the Southern states, much of whose population consisted of slaves, who didn’t vote.

 

Moreover, many of the delegates simply did not trust the people. George Mason, a prominent statesman from Virginia, likened the idea of the people picking a president to asking a blind man to pick a color. This was not just aristocratic snobbery. Remember, this was a time of no Internet, TV, radio, and not a lot of newspapers. And many people couldn’t read.  So how could everyday people in a large, spread out country possibly know who the most qualified people are to run the country?

 

Remember also that there were no political parties at that time. Voters would not simply have to choose between candidates selected by one party or another, as we do today. Instead, whoever was doing the voting would vote for whomever they thought should be president. The delegates at the convention were envisioning a process that involved numerous possible candidates getting votes.

 

One of the delegates, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, suggested a compromise; Having a group of "electors" select the president. Wilson was a very able and respected delegate at the convention, and one of only six Founding Fathers who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Many delegates liked the idea, but they got hung up on the question of who would pick these electors and how. 

 

So, after much wrangling, the first written draft of the constitution called for Congress to pick the president for one seven-year term. But when the question came up for decision in late August, delegates still couldn’t agree. So it and other unresolved issues were submitted to the wonderfully named Committee on Postponed Parts. (I loved that expression -- "postponed parts.")

 

Now, this Committee on Postponed Parts included some of the brightest minds and most influential people at the convention, including James Madison, Rufus King of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Governour Morris of Pennsylvania. Interestingly, however, it was chaired by one of the lesser-known of the Founders, David Brearly, the Chief Justice of New Jersey. Brearly was regarded by his contemporaries as a capable but not exceptional man -- “Good, if not brilliant parts” -- as one described him. (Again with the "parts" thing!) But Brearly's committee resolved some particularly thorny issues.

 

How and why the committee decided to discard the idea of congressional election of the president and revive the elector system has not formally been recorded. But John Dickinson of Delaware many years later described himself as the one who brought it up. Dickinson was also a bright light and keen intellect at the convention, and probably not coincidentally, Wilson had clerked for him in his law office.

 

In any event, the Committee came up with a compromise system for electing the president that appealed to many of the interests and responded to many of the concerns, like much of the Constitution itself. And with some changes, the delegates at the convention, who by now were ready to get out of Philly and go home, adopted it.  Here's what it said:

 

--The people would elect electors and the electors would choose president. These electors could not be members of Congress or hold any other federal government office. That takes care of the concern about undue congressional influence and gives the people a role in selecting the president.

 

--The number of electors from each state would be allocated according to the number of senators and representatives from each state. That gave the small states a little extra clout and satisfied the slave states, because slaves would count as partial votes in selecting the House of Representatives (the infamous "three-fifths compromise").

 

--Each state legislature would set its own rules for how to pick the electors. That punted the issue of choosing the electors to the states, so that the delegates at the convention wouldn't have to deal with it, and which appealed to the people who thought the new constitution was taking too much power away from the states.

 

--The electors would vote for two people. The one with most votes would be president if the number of votes was a majority, the person with the second most votes would be vice president. If no one got a majority, Congress would choose. (There was some floor debate over whether the Senate, the House, or both would decide. The convention made another compromise -- the House would choose the president, the Senate would choose the vice president; each state delegation gets one vote.)

 

The idea, as the Founding Fathers saw it, was that these electors would serve as “an assembly of wise men and learned elders.”

 

So how has that worked out?

 

Well, there were some immediate problems, largely caused by the rise of political parties. In the election of 1796, parties were choosing candidates.  The Federalists chose John Adams as their candidate for president while the Democratic-Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson. Adams got elected, but the person who got the second most votes was Jefferson. So poor Adams had to serve with his chief political opponent as vice president.

 

Things got even worse in the election of 1800, when the parties again selected Adams and Jefferson. The Democratic-Republicans figured out the system and made sure their electors voted for Aaron Burr as vice president. But Jefferson and Burr ended up getting the same number of electoral votes!! So it was a tie and went to the House of Representatives to decide. The House took 36 ballots to choose Jefferson.

 

The 12th amendment in 1804 straightened that out by clarifying that the electors cast one vote for president and one for vice president. 

 

Still, there have been four elections since then when a president was elected without getting a majority of the popular vote.

 

--In 1824, when Andrew Jackson won the most popular votes but not enough for a majority (there were four candidates that year), and the House elected John Quincy Adams.

 

--In 1876, when Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but fell one elector short of a majority with electoral votes in three states not yet counted. Congress appointed an Electoral Commission to decide who won those contested votes and they awarded them and the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes.

 

--In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison.

 

--And in 2000, when George W. Bush won the electoral vote even though Al Gore won the popular vote.

 

So that's how we got the Electoral College.  The question I have for my readers is: Do we still need it?

What do you think?

 

 

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