by Gary L. Gregg, Director of the McConnell Center
I recently had the chance to talk with a group of high school students who asked me questions about the Electoral College. When I asked them to rate their own knowledge of the institution between 1 (near none) and 5 (metaphysically complete), they mostly ranked themselves at a generous 2.5, which, I assume, is where most of us would claim to be. In my next few columns, I will answer those student questions so that you might add to your own score and better understand one of the most consequential but least understood of our political institutions. We begin with the beginning.
Where did the Electoral College come from?
To understand the Electoral College, we should first understand that in creating the presidency, the framers of our Constitution were creating an office unlike had ever been seen before. In an age of monarchy, they were attempting to create a representative and elected executive and then they had to figure out how to select a person to fill the role. Ultimately, they had one overarching goal in the selection process—to have a system that would produce the right person for the office.
They were focused, in other words, on “outputs”—getting a proper president—when they debating methods of selection. Many of the members at the Constitutional Convention wanted Congress to choose the president as they assumed the people would choose wise and good representatives in Congress who then would know the right person to fill the presidency. The downside, of course, is that such a system would violate checks and balances by making the president the creature of Congress.
Only two members of the Convention spoke in favor of having a direct election by the people. This direct “democratic” election was believed to be flawed as it was not assumed the American people were in a position to know the true characters of candidates and which of them would actually make a good chief executive. A single national election also brought problems for the decentralized, federalist, nature of the republic in which all elected officials would be chosen by local or state entities.
In the end, they settled on a form of representational selection—having state-based electoral colleges that would deliberate, discuss and choose a wise and good person for president and then would disband so the president would be free of political pressure from the people or an existing body.
The system would work like this: Each state would be given electoral votes equivalent to the number of Congressmen and Senators they had. The state legislatures would then be empowered to create a process to select electors. Those electors would meet in their respective states and share information and deliberate with one another before casting their votes for “some fit person for president,” as Alexander Hamilton summed it up.
The state-based votes would be sent to the nation’s capital where the votes would be counted in Congress. If a candidate got a majority of the votes, he would become president and the second highest vote getter would become vice president. If no candidate got a majority, then the House of Representatives would choose the President from the top five vote getters. The House would vote, though, with each state having but one vote—a very important provision forcing more deliberation on the candidates (this time by the House members from each state) and recognizing the states as the essential units of the Republic. The person with the second highest electoral vote totals would be made vice president. The Senate would choose the vice president if there was a tie for the second highest electoral vote position.
What can we learn from this brief overview of the Electoral College’s origins?
First, as shocking as it may be, you have no constitutional right to vote for president. (Shhhh, don’t tell your civics teachers or your parents, kids!) The Constitution leaves it up to the state legislatures how to choose the electors. At its creation it was not anticipated that people would actually vote for the electors let alone directly for a candidate. What was anticipated is that state legislatures would act as representatives of their people and the interest of their states and would select a group of wise civic leaders who might know the candidates and what it takes to be an effective administrator.
Second, the framer’s goal was getting good and independent presidents. They were, in other words, focused on outputs where our contemporary focus is often on inputs when we talk about the demands of democracy or “one man one vote” or electoral equality.
Third, the method settled on for choosing presidents was one based on deliberation. Our founders believed in the power of sharing information and rational deliberation. They built a system hoping state legislatures would deliberate on the right electors to make the best decision. Then the electors would rationally deliberate on the merits of presidential candidates. And, if they failed to settle on a candidate, the members of the House of Representatives would meet as state-based delegations to deliberate between the finalists (and the Senate would meet as a body to deliberate on the candidates for vice president, if that was necessary).
Fourth, the states were the essential political entity involved in choosing the president. The electoral votes were divided up by states. The state legislatures would choose the electors from their state. The electors would meet in their state. In case no candidate won a majority, the House would organize itself by state units to deliberate and vote. And the Senate, of course, is organized according to equal representation of the states and, if necessary, would choose the vice president.
The Electoral College no longer functions the way it was intended, but it retains some of the core elements of our founding; most powerfully today it reminds us that we are not one big and undifferentiated nation, but are states united with differing interests, values and contributions to be made to the common enterprise.
Well, if it no longer functions as it was intended, how has it evolved and why? That question will be taken up in the next installment.
- If the electoral college no longer functions as intended, so we restore it to its intentions or abandon it altogether?
- Would our political campaigns produce better candidates if we didn’t have the electoral college?
- Why did the framers work so hard to accommodate the interests of the states?