As I write this on Thursday, November 5, the presidential election is still uncalled. Even if states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia submit final tallies today, there is bound to be weeks of lawsuits, recounts, and general distrust of these results from whichever side loses the presidential campaign. With votes so close in several swing states, and the winner of those states’ popular vote gaining all of its electoral votes, even a handful of votes could make a huge (4 years!!) difference in who runs the executive branch of our country.
With this in mind, so many people have wondered how the electoral college works, why it was implemented, and whether or not the Constitution should be amended to abolish the institution. Today, I want to explore why the founders set up the Electoral College.
How to elect the president was a hotly debated topic at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Should it be through a popular vote? Should the state legislatures choose the executive? Should Congress? Something else? In the end, the framers of the Constitution decided on a unique, if not confusing, system: the Electoral College.
There is no question that the Electoral College limits majoritarian democracy; it is an “indirect election.” But it is important to keep in mind that in founding the new U.S. Government, the framers wanted unity. As shown by the country’s first 4 of 5 presidents being from Virginia, large states generally had more swaying power in federal politics than small states. Since the U.S. strove to be a republic, governed by federalism, the framers had to come up with a way to balance the power of small and large states. This was to “avoid the tyranny of the majority.” If the will of the majority constantly overtook the rights of minorities, a popular despotism would likely result.
For the legislative branch, they created a bicameral legislature (the House and Senate) where the lower house’s number of representatives from each state was determined by that state’s population, whereas the upper house gave each state two delegates (senators). This way, even if large states could control the house, smaller states would have more of a voice in the Senate.
The process for electing the president has similar characteristics. Each state receives electors based on how many representatives they have in Congress ( # of House reps + 2 senators). In the minds of the framers, this would ensure that the diverse needs of states and citizens would be heard. Framers also worried about an uninformed electorate choosing the President, and with electors they believed that informed, uninfluenced, educated men could make objective decisions for the needs of their state.
Coming from a Confederation that lacked any real central authority, the founders wanted to keep state autonomy strong, while also building up the role of a federal government. Having this compromised approach to electing the President was one way to do that. Small states still had a say in who their next president was, but large states containing more people would still receive more electoral votes.
Of course, the dynamics of the American populous have changed drastically in the last 230 years. When the Constitution was written, the majority of Americans (95%) lived in rural settings, now more than 80% live in cities. There are sound arguments in opposition to and in favor of the Electoral College. There were 230 years ago. Like many other aspects of our Constitution, the Electoral College was a compromise. Still, to understand that compromise, we must contextualize this aspect of our Constitution within the time and place it was ratified. Once we have done that, then we can bring sound arguments to the public sphere as to whether the Electoral College is still the best fit for the United States.