Picking the President: Is the Electoral College Broken?

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is very excited to offer a little trailer for our forthcoming book Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College. The book offers brief essays that examine the Electoral College from different disciplinary perspectives, including philosophy, mathematics, political science, history, and pedagogy. Along the way, the essays address a variety of questions about the Electoral College: Why was it created? How has it changed over time? Who benefits from it? Is it just? How will future demographic patterns affect it? Should we alter or abolish the Electoral College, and if so, what should replace it? In exploring these matters, Picking the President enhances our understanding of one of America’s most high-profile, momentous issues.

The book is edited by Eric Burin of the University of North Dakota Department of History and featuring contributions by Eric Burin, Brad Austin, Bill Caraher, Mark Jendrysik, Don Johnson, Benjamin Kassow, Timothy Prescott, Patrick Rael, Andrew Shankman, Mark Trahan, and Jack Weinstein.

To whet your appetite for what this book will offer, Eric Burin, offers this thought provoking preview:

The Founders Fixed a Broken Electoral College—We Should, Too

In 1787, Americans probably had more experience writing constitutions than any people ever. They had adopted the Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War, and had penned thirteen state constitutions, as well. As a result, no one arrived at the Constitutional Convention thinking that the Electoral College was the way to pick a president.

Instead, the convention’s delegates quickly identified three groups that could select the president: Congress, state governments, or the people. Many delegates wanted to put the matter in Congress’s hands (after all, in most states, the legislature elected the governor). The congressional option nearly came to fruition, but a last-minute attempt to privilege the large states, when combined with a lingering desire to make the executive branch more independent of its legislative counterpart, derailed the proposal. The matter wasn’t resolved until the waning days of the convention, at a time when the delegates were greatly fatigued. Ultimately, the framers assembled at the convention adopted the Electoral College. Under this system, electoral votes were allotted to each state based on the size of its congressional delegation (i.e., the number of representatives it had in the House, plus its two senators); state legislatures determined how the electors would be picked; and each elector could cast two votes for president. If a presidential candidate failed to get a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives, with each state getting one vote, would select the president and vice president from among the top five electoral vote-getters.

More than anything, the Electoral College reflected the framers’ understanding of republicanism and their fear that demagogues and foreigners would undermine it in America. In allowing states to determine the means by which electors were selected, the Electoral College, wrote Alexander Hamilton, took into account a “sense” of the popular will. However they were chosen, the expectation was that the electors would be virtuous, selfless men who put the public good ahead of narrow, factional interests. As such, the electors would reject demagogic candidates in favor of meritorious and broad-minded ones. What’s more, the framers assumed that this Electoral College screening would rarely settle the matter. In most instances, they reckoned, a fair number of decent, honorable figures would stand for the presidency, with each enjoying some regional but not national renown. Under such circumstances, it would be unlikely that one of them would receive a majority of the electoral votes. A candidate’s chances of securing an electoral majority were further diminished by the fact that electors had to meet on the same day in their respective states. In light of the era’s technological limitations, coordination among far-flung electors would have been very difficult, and this safeguarded against foreign and domestic intrigue. The Electoral College’s contemporary supporters often argue that it was designed to compel presidential candidates to appeal to different regional constituencies, but the republican beliefs that undergirded the system, along with the anti-collusion aspects of its operation, provides little evidence for this view. Indeed, the framers assumed that, more often than not, the presidential contest would be thrown into the House of Representatives.

After the Constitution was ratified, the Electoral College underwent additional modifications. These changes were spurred by something the framers hadn’t anticipated—the rise in early 1790s of two competing political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Largely driven by a quest for political power, partisans sought tactical advantages, changing the way their states chose electors, having electoral candidates run not as individuals but as a slate, and tinkering with winner-take-all systems within their states. The infusion of party politics caused the Electoral College to misfire: In 1796, a Democratic-Republican, Thomas Jefferson, ended up serving as Vice President to a Federalist President, John Adams.  In 1800, Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes, causing a constitutional crisis that nearly led to bloodshed. In response, in 1804, the 12th Amendment was adopted, the most important feature of which was requiring electors to cast separate ballots for the president and vice president. As a result, presidential contests became more democratic and partisan affairs, a development that allowed the winners to claim popular mandates that they used to push policy initiatives. This turn of events not only allowed emboldened presidents to challenge congressional power, it also gave them greater control over the executive branch, for the Vice President was no longer the second-place finisher among a host of virtuous candidates, but instead was a mere running mate who could never claim to have been an elector’s choice for president.

If the 12th Amendment signaled the democratization of presidential elections, why didn’t they just scrap the Electoral College altogether and replace it with a popular vote? A review of the original convention debates provides the answer: Southern states, with their large but disfranchised slave populations, would have been disadvantaged by such an arrangement. The 12th Amendment changed many things, but it did not alter the fact that when it came to divvying up electoral votes, states were allowed to count virtually all of their residents (or, in the case of enslaved African Americans, three-fifths  of them), even if many of those residents enjoyed no political rights. The adoption of the popular vote in the early 19th century would not have ended slavery, but it would have encouraged states to expand the franchise, for the more votes their residents cast, the greater their political clout. This line of reasoning is still true today—under a popular vote system, states would have an incentive to increase voter turnout.

Tinkering with the Electoral College continued into the 19th– and even 20th centuries, proof that previous generations did not regard it as something writ in lightening. The Founders, in particular, were willing to embrace change when it was necessary or advantageous to do so. Why was that the case? Perhaps they were more risk-tolerant—indeed, many of them literally had been armed revolutionaries. Or maybe it was because they could not employ the ruse of “appealing to authority” when other arguments failed them—the Founders did not have Founders to use as an intellectual crutch. Whatever the reason, they were willing to alter their system of governance when it was out of kilter with the world in which they lived. Like them, we should assess the Electoral College on the extent to which it aligns with our sensibilities and realities, and the fact that we do not employ anything like the Electoral College in any other contest attests to how poorly it comports with our contemporary values.


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