Not Your Founding Fathers' Electoral College

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tags: Founding Fathers, election 2016, Electoral College, Trump



Robert Schlesinger is managing editor for opinion at U.S. News & World Report. He is the author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters." Follow him on Twitter or reach him at rschlesinger@usnews.com.

Regardless of whether you want to preserve the Electoral College as it is, tweak it (as I do) or scrap it entirely, you have to understand that it doesn't function today the way the Founding Fathers planned.

I think this is worth pointing out in light of the animated responses I've gotten from readers regarding my last column, which called for reform by adding a set of bonus electoral votes which would be rewarded to the winner of the national popular vote.

People seem to make a couple of errors in their reverence for the Electoral College. First, they misunderstand its purpose, and concomitantly they misunderstand what it does and doesn't constitutionally entail.

"The Electoral College system ... was created by the founding fathers for the new Republic not as a direct outgrowth of eighteenth-century political principles but rather as an ad hoc compromise between those who believed in election of the president by Congress and those who believed in popular election," the political scientist William Keech wrote in 1978. Some founders wanted direct election; others mistrusted average voters' "capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates," as George Mason put it. This was especially true given the expectation – before the two-party system arose to winnow the number of contenders – that voters would be choosing among a host of candidates from far afield. How could some farmer from Virginia or New York know enough about all the candidates from other states and regions, the reasoning went.

So the compromise was the Electoral College, which per Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68 would allow the "sense of the people [to] operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided," while filtering that vox populi through "men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station." The original conception of the Electoral College, in other words, was a body of men who could serve as a check on the uninformed mass electorate. "This does not mean they were created as free agents authorized to ignore or invalidate the choice of the voters," the historian Arthur Schlesinger, my father, wrote in "War and the American Presidency" in 2004. "The framers, with their talent for ambiguity, were hazy on the question of the electors' freedom to choose." Certainly it was there to some extent. As Keech wrote, "the possibility of electors substituting their own judgments for those of their state's voters was not ruled out by the Constitution. Such a practice was not implausible or offensive by the political values of the day." ...




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