OCTOBER 29, 2008
FOUNDERS GAVE IT THE OLD COLLEGE TRY
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
John McCain has had a rough few months in the public opinion polls, but he still has a chance for victory thanks to the Electoral College. For the nation, though, another “wrong winner” selection could prove traumatic, and will undoubtedly lead to renewed, albeit fruitless, calls for the removal of the college.
Though it is almost impossible to remove, the Electoral College is the single most ridiculed part of the original Constitution. It is not just for the “wrong winner” elections, such as 1876, 1888 and 2000. The Electoral College has also focused the nation's attention on a few swing states, allowing candidates to ignore a large percentage of voters.
There is rarely any explanation, however, of why this peculiar device was created and what it was actually designed to do. The Electoral College was actually an intelligent compromise between many competing interests.
It may seem strange today, but the members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were particularly proud of the electoral system, with Alexander Hamilton noting that it was “almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure.”
The founders were not that interested in the role of the executive branch of government. Congress was supposed to be the locus of power. And the founders were not really considering a direct popular election of presidents.
There was little experience in directly electing executives: In 10 of the 13original states, the state legislature chose the governor, and in two of the other three states, if no candidate received a clear majority, the legislature made the choice. This was the model for election that the conventioneers drew on. Throughout the country, the chief executives of each state were not chosen by the voters.
The original plans brought to Philadelphia, and the first outlines of a presidency adopted by the convention, all provided for election of the chief executive by Congress.
However, as every student is taught, America's government is built on the principle of checks and balances. The convention was concerned about handicapping the president by placing too much power in Congress' hands. If they chose the president, he would be in their debt. Therefore, a committee eventually designed an alternate Congress of electors, made up with the exact same amount of members, to choose the candidates. They also specifically banned any federal office holder from being a member of this congress.
Despite the creation of what would one day be the Electoral College, it was not called this until the 1800s. Congress still had some part to play in the selection of a president. In order to prevent the big states from dominating the choice, each elector was given two votes, one of which had to be cast for someone from another state. The second vote became the vice president.
Because of the diffuse nature of the nascent republic, many believed that the electors' votes would be divided among favorite sons, and therefore they would be unable to select a president. If this came to pass, the electors would have served as a nominating committee. The top five candidates would be sent to Congress, which would then select a president in a state-by-state vote of the congressional delegations.
In the country's first century, Congress was called on to select a president twice, first in 1800 and then in 1824. The first resulted in the 12thAmendment, changing the Electoral College by dividing up the elector's vote into one for a presidential candidate and one for a vice presidential candidate; the second helped create the strong two-party system.
There are plenty of questions about the Electoral College, the more pressing being whether it does more harm than good. But it should be clear that it was not a hastily thrown together “Rube Goldberg” contraption, designed as an anti-democratic device to deprive the voters of the right to choose a president. Nor was its goal to benefit a few states. Instead, the founders wanted to create a functional government that was accepted by all, but included the checks and balances they felt necessary to prevent abuses of power.
If the founders were here today, they may not be thrilled with all aspects of the current Electoral College, but it has definitely served their primary goal: providing a stable, fairly representative government for almost all of the country's existence.
Joshua Spivak is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City.