Some Thoughts on the Electoral College

tags: election 2016, Electoral College

Kevin Gannon serves as Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.

... The Electoral College was the Framers’ answer to a dilemma containing the very real potential to stymie their work. Everyone in the Philadelphia convention knew that their new system ought to have an executive branch, and they also knew that the first person to fill said branch would undoubtedly be the Convention’s president, the aristocratic Virginia slaveholding planter George Washington–the closest thing the new nation had to a King. Clearly, the executive–a President–would possess a fairly wide range of powers. But if this new framework of government was to be a republic, the President would have to actually be elected, not receive the office through inheritance or appointment. Those were the rules. The problem, though, is that the Framers didn’t trust the vast majority of the people who would potentially be doing that electing; they refused to believe their fellow citizens possessed the necessary acumen to make the “correct” choice when it came to the presidency. The Electoral College was the clumsy solution to this dilemma faced by men who wanted to create a republican form of government with as few actual republican features as possible.

To be sure, the arguments for the Electoral College both during the Convention and the ensuing ratification debates were fairly ingenious. The Electoral College was transitory, its defenders argued; it went out of existence once it performed its function, and thus the President would be beholden to no extant body when he took office. The Electoral College preserved the political voice of the small states, as it reflected the structure of Congress (a hybrid of proportional and equal representation) determined by the “Great Compromise” that had essentially saved the convention from dissolving before it could produce something with which the Framers could enact their coup. Also, the general consensus among the Framers was that the Electoral College would probably never bestow a majority of its votes on one individual anyway, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives more often than not–probably all for the better, given that whole distrust-of-the-masses thing. And, though this was a point more often winkingly implied than explicitly stated, the Electoral College would protect (indeed, incentivize) slavery and slaveholding. Because a state received a number of Electors concomitant to the size of its congressional delegation, and that delegation’s numbers were augmented for the slave states via the three-fifths compromise, the slaveholding states formed a bloc whose outsized influence in presidential elections would be difficult to resist (future elections would vindicate this argument; just ask John Adams).

It’s hard to deny–impossible if you actually read the historical record–that the Electoral College was an attempt to avoid the democratic implications involved in creating an elected executive. It’s a particularly egregious antidemocratic kludge in a document full of antidemocratic kludges. Hell, James Madison proposed the system as a way around the “difficulty…of a serious nature” that southerners would encounter trying to protect their interests against a more populous tier of non-slaveholding states (see his speech on July 19). And the subsequent history of presidential elections has borne that out. If you have assumed that whoever gets the most votes wins the election, the Electoral College is here to disabuse you of your democratic naivete. There have been five presidential elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not become President by virtue of the Electoral College system, including this most recent election, where Hillary Clinton will not become president in spite of the fact that she won the popular vote by a larger margin than, for example, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon did in their electoral victories. And even though the three-fifths compromise no longer affects a state’s number of Electoral College votes, the legacy of slavery in terms of race-based voter disfranchisement still haunts the electoral process, in particular when those efforts in pivotal “swing states” like Wisconsin and North Carolina tip the Electoral College balance like they did in this canvass. ...

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