It’s time to pack your bags, get your books, and load up the car, because we are off to college. No, we’re not talking about the type of college where you sit in a classroom, live in a dorm, and get up to outdated stereotypical 90’s hi-jinks. We are talking about the Electoral College. We can only assume that there is less drinking… though maybe not this year. Our Electors have been in the news a lot recently, but before we judge them on their actions or inaction it will probably be beneficial to go back and look at the system as a whole, from a historical point of view.
Keg Stands for Democracy
According to Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the US Constitution: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
It may not have escaped your notice that there is nothing in there about popular election. That is because the Framers were not crazy about the American population voting directly for the President of the United States. Instead, they saw the President being elected more like how the Pope is elected, through the College of Cardinals -Go Fighting Cardinals!- Electors were meant to be the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State, and they were meant to select the President regardless of state or party loyalties. Before we go any further, you need to understand that this process was established not because the Framers thought the American population was stupid, -Well, everyone but Hamilton anyway- but because the Framers were dealing with different issues and fears that we don’t even consider today.
We have talked before about how our Founding Fathers were more concerned about issues we don’t even think about anymore. The Electoral College was set up because the Framers were dealing with thirteen colonies all jealously guarding their own power and fearful of a federal government. Our system was therefore meant to be a balance between states’ rights and federal authority. It was believed that if the President was elected through a popular vote, the public would not have enough information to make an informed decision. After all, at the time the the population of the US was 4 million people, all spread down a thousand miles of Atlantic seaboard. The fastest form of communication was a man on a horse. So the Founding Fathers believed that people would just end up voting for the “favorite son” of their own state, and nothing would get accomplished, or the vote would always go toward the states with the most people. So the Electoral College was created as a way to safeguard the rights of smaller states and assure the governors and legislators of all the states that they had a say in picking the President.
Now, you may still think it is a stupid system, but remember that you are looking at it through 21st Century eyes. When the Constitution was written, the world was a different place. Back then, the President did not have the kind of power he has today. In fact, until the 1930’s the President’s power was limited. Aside from a few exceptions, such as Lincoln and Roosevelt, Congress was seen as the more powerful entity. It is also worth mentioning that people like Washington hated the idea of political parties. Madison and Hamilton believed they were inevitable, but thought they would still be amicable toward one another. They created the Electoral College to be a tool of state’s rights, not for the benefit of political parties. The Framers did not anticipate the hyperpartisan world of 2016, and they did not foresee America being split by red and blue states.
Learning in College
Here is the thing, the system never really worked, even in the beginning, and the cajoling and backdoor politicking it encouraged had some pretty poor consequences. The Electoral College had a hand in the Election of 1824 where John Quincy Adams was elected over the more popular Andrew Jackson, and it may even be -at least- partially responsible for getting Hamilton killed. By the 19th Century it was pretty clear that the Electoral College needed to be changed, and it was. After the Election of 1800, and the rise of political parties, the 12th Amendment empowered the Electors to cast only one vote for a political ticket, instead of the two individual votes -for President and VP- they originally cast. Also, electors became selected by the voters, as opposed to the state legislators. By the mid-century all the states were voting for their electors making it a permanent tradition in US elections, but still not technically a law. Currently, 29 states have laws that force electors to vote based upon the popular election result, making the electors all but honorary positions.
As you can see, the Electoral College has never been static. It has been shifted and amended to deal with many new aspects of the growing nation, but it is still not the same as a populist election. Even during the debacle of 1800, the idea of moving to a popular vote system was not really considered. The horrors of the French Revolution tainted the idea of populist rule for a lot of the founders. In fact, even as early as 1788 people like Alexander Hamilton were rapping about the dangers of a populist movement: The process of [electoral college] election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union. Hamilton envisioned the Electoral College as a place where the most qualified political thinkers gathered and had a serious discussion over who was best suited to be President, so as to avoid demagogues from being able to ride into office on a swell of ridiculous promises made to an overly-zealous electorate. In France, that sort of populist movement led to the guillotine, but in America it has now led us to something far more dangerous and with much worse hair.
It is also worth mentioning that slavery played a part in the continued existence of the Electoral College -because of course it did. This is America and our demons haunt every institution we own- At the nation’s founding, James Wilson from Pennsylvania proposed and argued for a direct vote over the Electoral College, but James Madison of Virginia argued against it, The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. In other words, the Northern states had more free-white men of voting age than the Southern states did, and a direct election would result in more Northern victories. However, when counting non-voting slaves as two-fifths of the electorate population -even though they were not allowed to vote directly- than that gave Slave states an advantage when it came to the number of Electors they received. Thus, the slave state of Virginia became more power in the Electoral College system than the free state of Pennsylvania. That might also be why four out of our first five Presidents were from Virginia.
Final Exams in History
So what is the point, professor? Well, think about this: four times in our history this system has put the unpopular candidate in office over the popular one. By almost ever metric the Electoral College is broken. It does not even protect small states or low population areas from the power of big cities and large states. If anything it encourages candidates to spend most of their time campaigning in just a few swing states, while neglecting the larger country. If we had direct elections, than candidates could not afford to miss the “fly-over” states anymore than they could afford to miss New York or Los Angeles. Even worse, the system disenfranchises voter turnout. Voting Republican in California or Democrat in Texas feels like throwing your vote away, because it is. That is bad. People don’t show up to vote in national elections don’t vote in local elections either, and those are arguably more important. In a direct system, every vote would matter, no matter where you live, and that is a lot more incentive to go to the polls.
After the 1800 election, the 12th Amendment irrevocably changed the way we elect our President. Among other things, it openly acknowledged the influence of political parties and empowered them to select one candidate for President and one candidate for Vice-President. This idea literally ushered in the possibility for a populist President. It laid the ground work for the Electoral College we know today, not Hamilton’s idea of a room full of thoughtful electors, but just people nominated by political parties to rubber-stamp the predetermined election results. It created the idea of a popular vote in all but practice. Perhaps even more ironic, in 2016 the Electoral College system functioned exactly opposite as Hamilton intended. It did not prevent the election of a populist demagogue, but instead ensured it. If we had been using a direct vote system Donald Trump would have lost by over 2 million votes.
But this article is not really about Donald Trump. No, it is about Hamilton and Washington and Madison and Adams and all the rest. We have to remember that our Framers empowered us with the ability to change the constitution as we saw fit, because they may have gotten the Electoral College wrong but they still knew what they were doing. They lived in a world of 4 million Americans spread across thirteen colonies with only a few dirt roads connecting them. They could not envision the rise of the Internet, or transportation, or cable news networks, or even political parties -which only took less than 8 years to fully form. Yet, they gave us the tools to amend our founding document because the world changes and our needs inevitably change with it. That was why we ratified the 12th Amendment, and maybe that is why we need to change the Constitution again to do away with the Electoral College.