The mode of choosing the President of the United States has been much in the news lately. Our Constitution (Article II, Section 1, as amended) provides that a group of Electors selected by each state shall convene in December after the popular election to choose the President and Vice President. The Electors are historically elected by the voters in each state (although the Constitution does not require that they be elected). The so-called Electoral College process is unique in the universe of countries with democratically elected leadership. No other country has implemented anything close to the Electoral College system to elect their chief executive. Let’s step back and take a long view of this unique aspect of the American political system. Why did our country’s founders feel it necessary to implement this method? Has it met its original intended purpose?
First it’s important and relevant to point out that the EC as currently implemented is different from the original version. This feature of the Constitution, along with many others, was revised by amendment when obvious flaws in the original document became apparent. In the 1780s when the Constitution was being developed, the US population stood at 2.78 million people apportioned among 13 states. The framers of the Constitution recognized that they were embarking on a novel social experiment. They implemented many features of governance that turned out to be mistakes. Senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected by popular vote. Slaves and native Americans were not recognized as full and legitimate members of the citizenry. Women were not allowed to vote. Political parties were not accounted for because they did not exist. The framers were not fully committed to democracy but felt a paternal obligation to protect Americans from themselves. In this context, the EC was designed as a deliberative body to elect the President and to award the Vice Presidency to the second place finisher. Numerous Constitutional amendments (numbers 12, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, and 26) have been needed to correct deficiencies in the election process, including the Electoral College. Change is always hard, but sometimes necessary.
Rationale for the Electoral College
The rationale for the Electoral College is described in detail in The Federalist Papers : No. 68 “The Mode Of Electing the President.” Alexander Hamilton wrote this and many other Federalist Papers essays to explain and expand on various aspects of the new Constitution and the motivations of the founding fathers for many of its features. Hamilton explained that the Electors would be selected by popular vote representing their candidate of choice, but were expected to deliberate independently over candidate qualifications and were never intended to rubber stamp the popular choice. We are now 230 years into this social experiment and in a much better position to evaluate the Electoral College in particular and to rate its efficacy and effectiveness against the founders’ original intent.
Should the Electoral College reflect the will of the people?
A key aspect of the Electoral College, one that is reinforced throughout the Federalist Papers essay, is that it should be independent of the forces that might influence or corrupt the general population. The founders understood the importance of the Presidency to the country and to the world, and they wanted to ensure that only the most competent and trustworthy individual would be selected.
[T]he immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
The implication here is that the EC is free to choose the most qualified candidate, independent of the possibly tainted intent of the gullible voters. The founders suspected that an unqualified individual might be popular in one or a few states, but that the Electors could be relied on to weed out the charlatans and pretenders, whereas the general population might be fooled. The Electoral College was expected, was required in fact, to overrule any popular choice that they deemed unqualified. It was not intended to be a rubber stamp of the popular vote in each state. The evolution of state laws and customs that simply pass the majority vote within each state onto the Electoral College would have been viewed by the founders as antithetical to the proper working of the independent EC.
What characteristics of an unqualified candidate were the founders most concerned about?
The first issue raised in the Federalist Papers essay is that a candidate might be influenced by a foreign power.
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one querter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?
In the eyes of the founders, the filtering imposed by the EC would ferret out such scurrilous behavior and ensure that no foreign government would be able to install a puppet in order to take control of the United States.
The second issue mentioned is that a con man might be able to manipulate the popular vote.
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
The filtering that the EC would provide was expected to guarantee that a charlatan elected by popular vote would be screened out by the more discerning members of the EC. The EC would overrule the erroneous will of the people in order to protect us from our baser instincts. And of course, the people would always recognize the wisdom of this process, and willingly accept the judgment of the EC.
The role of political parties
When the Constitution was written, there were no political parties. George Washington was elected without party affiliation by the Electoral College process, functioning as it was designed. The framers anticipated that future elections would follow the George Washington model, whereby clearly well qualified candidates would rise to the pinnacle of American society by virtue of their merit and be chosen by acclamation. However every election since the first has been dominated by two political parties, effectively representing progressive and conservative points of view, and allowing for political intrigue across the ethical spectrum. In this context, the candidate of each party is selected to represent the political philosophy of its constituency. This feature of American politics was not foreseen by the framers, and is poorly accommodated in an Electoral College system. Major party candidates are selected by a state-by-state primary system, and typically allow a thorough vetting throughout the long campaign, thereby obviating the need for an independent vetting by a body of Electors. Minority party candidates have virtually no chance of accumulating enough Electoral votes to win the Presidency, regardless of the popularity of their positions.
So how well has this worked out?
On the issue of overruling the will of the people if the EC perceives deficiencies in the popular choice — the current trend toward requiring that the EC in each state reflect the popular vote winner negates this possibility. FAIL
On the issue of ensuring that no foreign power can influence the choice of President — the EC had no impact on protecting Americans from Russian influence in the 2016 election, even though Russian meddling was well established before the EC voted. FAIL
On the issue of ensuring that a charlatan and a con man could not be elected to the Presidency — duh. FAIL
What about protecting small states from large-state tyranny?
The Electoral College affords voters in less populous states far more say in determining the Chief Executive than voters in larger states. This is by design — a feature, not a bug. After the 2010 census, California was awarded 55 electors, based on a population of 37,253,956. The state of Wyoming was awarded 3 electors based on a population of 563,626. So each voter in Wyoming has more than 3.6 times as much influence on the outcome of the Presidential election as their counterparts in California. As a result in these disproportionate allocations of votes toward smaller states, the Electoral College has elected the minority candidate 5 times in US history (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016). If you live in a small state, you might find this to be to your advantage. However, for those living in large states, and for those who support the principle of one-person, one-vote, this is decidedly a FAIL.
As discussed in the Federalist Papers essay, the original intent of the Electoral College system was to provide a layer of insulation between the voting population and the Chief Executive in order to allow more thorough deliberation and to potentially overrule the popular vote outcome. In particular, the founding fathers wanted to prevent foreign influence in American Presidential elections and to ensure that a charlatan would never be elected President. On these counts, the system has never worked as intended because it quickly became a rubber stamp of the popular vote in each state. Any deviation from the popular vote, even though that was clearly intended by the framers, is now considered a failure of the system. As a result, the primary motivation for crafting the Electoral system has never been realized. However, the small-state compromise that initially was necessary to entice the smaller states to ratify the Constitution has clearly been advantageous in shifting power to the smaller states. That aspect of the Electoral College system has worked exactly as intended. Whether or not the citizens of those small states will ever be willing to concede that power in the interest of fairness remains to be seen.