Why the Electoral College Is So Hard to Understand
The Electoral College is that institution that elects the president of the United States. According to the Constitution in Article II, section. 1, the Electoral College (EC) consists of electors chosen by a method approved by the state legislature. The presidential candidate must win by a majority of the electoral votes cast.
Some hate the EC, thinking it’s a monstrosity. Well, I agree it’s a monstrosity. But we need to remember that many of our founding fathers were amateur scientists and that many of their concepts of government came from metaphors derived from the world of mechanics. One important concept was the principle of equilibrium. For example, there was a prevalent belief that power should not be concentrated in the hands of any one person (a king) or in the hands of the many (the people). Rather there should be a balance, an “equilibrium” where the efforts of one political actor would counteract the excess of another. In the words of James Madison
ambition must be made to counteract ambition.
Finding the Balance
Historians are in general agreement that when the framers created the Constitution, they wanted some sort of executive, but did not want a king. When they convened at the Pennsylvania State House in May of 1787 in Philadelphia, they wanted an executive that was sufficiently powerful to enforce the law yet not so powerful that he was tempted to exercise tyrannical powers. The framers were aware of the problems inherent in creating an executive office. In the words of Gouverneur Morris, a champion of strong executive powers:
make him [the executive] too weak: the Legislature will usurp his powers. Make him too strong: he will usurp on the Legislature.
Their initial scheme was to have a single, term-limited executive, elected for one seven-year term, to be chosen by the Congress.
Now, here’s where the complexity starts. They wanted the president elected by the legislature because it seemed the most feasible approach. Most state governors of the time were chosen by their state assemblies and they wanted a check on the power of the executive. Having the people elect the president was considered fraught with problems, so that approach was not seriously considered. However, many framers wanted an executive that was independent of the legislature.
So, in order to get an independent executive they thought to make him “unreelectable” so that he would not be beholden to the assembly.
The above scheme was the best-liked system throughout the Convention. So why wasn’t it adopted?
The problem was that by having the executive term-limited, they ran the risk of creating a tyrant. Since he would not seek reelection, he need not be concerned so much with how he governed which would encourage him to be tyrannical and “heavy-handed.” Some of the founders agreed with Alexander Hamilton when he opined in Federalist #72 that denying the executive the opportunity for reelection was likely to destroy one of the best incentives to good behavior.
Presidential Electors Sworn In
Tyrant or Lapdog?
Now, here’s where it gets complicated (hold on!). If we take Hamilton’s advice and make the executive reelectable by the legislature (that is, remove the term limit), he will no longer be independent from the legislature. In other words, he’d always be doing the legislature’s bidding so that he could stay reelected. But they wanted an independent executive. In short, if we term limit him, we create a tyrant; if we don’t, we get a lapdog for the legislature.
So, they were trying to balance several desires: an executive that would be elected by the legislature that would not be tyrannical, yet would be sufficiently powerful and independent. The debate over how to achieve these desirables went on for months. In fact, agreement over executive selection did not occur until the end of the Convention in September.
The man to propose a solution to these problems was Pierce Butler of South Carolina. Butler was primarily concerned with the president’s independence (by the time of Butler’s proposal, the “executive” had a name). Butler suggested the following solutions to the problems raised at the Convention:
- To reduce the potential for a tyrant, the president could be continually reelected.
- To increase his independence they had him chosen by another group besides the legislature. If he pandered to anyone, it would be the people rather than to the legislature.
However there are other problems which the EC accommodates
- To avoid the problem of trying to conduct a national election of the people, states would send electors of their own choosing for the selecting of the president.
- To avoid the conflict between large and small states, the number of electors would equal the number of representatives and senators each state gets.
- To avoid the problem that some electors would be more disenfranchised than others given the distance to travel to the national capital to vote, each elector would cast his electoral votes in his own state capital.
- To avoid the problem that the EC would not elect a majority candidate, they gave the elector two votes for president and stipulated that one of the two votes could not be cast for candidates from the same state. More than likely the elector would cast a vote for someone in his own state (a favorite son) and the second vote would be for a national figure. This national figure would likely be elected president.
- What if the EC could not elect a candidate by majority? The president would then be chosen by the House of Representatives (something that many of the framers thought would have often).
So the next time you complain about the Electoral College, complain that you don’t understand it or that it’s not “democratic,” keep in mind that what looks like the work of a mad scientist, actually accomplishes much. For the most part, we have had presidential elections that have resulted in a smooth transition of power, candidates that won by a clear majority. The historical irony has been that while the Electoral College looks monstrous, most of our presidents have not been equally as monstrous. If you think about it, the framers really did have a method to their madness, a robust method that still works.
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