Bringing the Electoral College in line with reality
Like much of the Constitution, the Electoral College emerged as a compromise to address specific concerns raised by the delegates at the constitutional convention of 1787.
As author David Stewart observes in “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution,” no issue gave the delegates more difficulty than how to choose the president. Numerous plans were offered, some of them preposterous — including one that suggested dividing the country into three regions with one executive for each region, who together would govern as a three-person executive committee. Basically the plans boiled down into one of two alternatives: Either Congress select the president, or the people elect the president.
The problem with Congress choosing the president, many delegates thought, was that the president could become beholden to the legislature and pander to Congress to get and keep the job. Congress picking the president was contrary to the principle of separation of powers that undergirds the constitutional structure.
As to the people electing the president, the smaller states didn’t like it. They believed that people from the larger, more populous states would dominate and elect their own. This was particularly true of the Southern states, much of whose population consisted of slaves, who were not permitted to vote.
Moreover, many of the delegates simply did not trust the people. This was not just aristocratic snobbery. Remember, this was a time of no internet, TV, radio and few newspapers. Many people couldn’t read. The average person in a large, spread out country did not have access to information to identify potential candidates.
There were also no political parties at that time. Voters would not simply choose between candidates selected by one party or another, as we do today. The founders were envisioning a selection process that involved a virtually unlimited supply of candidates.
Eventually, after much wrangling, the convention sent the question of presidential selection and other unresolved issues to the wonderfully named Committee on Postponed Parts. At some point during the committee’s consideration, the idea of an elector system, originally proposed by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, was revived. The convention had considered the plan earlier, but got hung up on who would choose the electors and how.
The committee, however, crafted a compromise that responded to the concerns raised during earlier deliberations. Here is how it went:
Electors would choose the president, and those electors could not be members of Congress or hold any other federal government office. That addressed the concern about undue congressional influence.
The number of electors from each state would be allocated according to the number of senators and members of the House from each state. That gave small states a little extra clout and satisfied the slave states, because under the “three-fifths compromise” slaves would count partially in determining the number of a state’s representatives in the House.
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 appealed to 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 the most votes would be president if the number of votes was a majority, the one with the next 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 got one vote.)
As the founding fathers saw it, the electors would serve as “an assembly of wise men and learned elders.” So how has that worked out? Well, nothing like the founders planned. The founders had not anticipated political parties or their overriding influence on the election process. They had not anticipated that political parties would choose the electors in each state. They thought either the state legislatures or the people would. They had not anticipated a lengthy primary process in which numerous potential candidates would be vetted through numerous information sources and debates until only one candidate emerged for each party.
Most importantly, the founding fathers thought the electors would be acting independently — “wise” and “learned” — and not as rubber stamps of the popular vote in their respective states.
Times have changed since the Electoral College was established. Information on the candidates is plentiful, and popular elections are now more accepted than they were in the 1700s. If we really want to observe the founders’ original intent, then let the electors choose the president on their own. Otherwise, let’s amend the Electoral College to reflect the current realities of the presidential election process and of our form of democracy.