Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Evolution of the Electoral College

by Gary L. Gregg

This is the second installment in a series based on questions asked about the Electoral College. The previous one outlined the origins of the selection system that emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

As I detailed previously, the Electoral College was designed by the Framers of the Constitution as a method they hoped would result in getting the right people in the presidency. It was based in the states and prefaced by the idea that calm deliberation was a preferable method of making decisions to emotion-based political campaigns. It no longer functions the way it was intended.

How and Why has the Electoral College Changed?

The Electoral College functioned as it was intended for the first three elections under the new Constitution. In 1789 and 1792 electors met in their states, discussed the situation in the nation and then voted unanimously in every state to make George Washington the President of the United States. No one can seriously doubt that he was the right choice and the system worked flawlessly. Washington having refused a third term, the majority of electors chose Vice President John Adams as the next president and made Thomas Jefferson the new vice president in 1796. These elections all went according to plan with arguably the most talented men in America being chosen president and vice president.

The great hiccup came in the election of 1800. By 1800 the nation had begun to splinter along party lines. One side of the divide featured Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The other included President Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson offered himself for president and Aaron Burr became his faction’s vice presidential candidate in 1800.

The hit musical “Hamilton” dedicates a song to the election of 1800 and for good reason. It was one of Hamilton’s greatest moments and one of the most important early crises in American history. But, the musical’s history is not quite right.

The original system of presidential selection provided for electors to cast two votes for president—the majority winner becoming president and the second place vote getter becoming vice president. This is how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who agreed on next to nothing, came to be part of the same administration from 1797 to 1801. 

Since America had begun splitting into two basic divisions, the electors in 1800 largely voted along those divisional lines. That resulted in every elector who voted for Thomas Jefferson also casting a vote for Aaron Burr. There being no way to differentiate between who was to be president and who was to be vice president, the election ended in a tie. It would have to be decided in the House of Representatives. To complicate matters, the House was controlled by the Federalists who were aligned with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams and who were no friends of Thomas Jefferson.

The election in the House went 35 ballots with no president being chosen. The situation looked dire. Finally, Hamilton intervened for the good of the nation to convince some of his fellow Federalists to swallow hard and vote for their great enemy Thomas Jefferson. On that 36th ballot, Jefferson was elected and the nation saved from having Aaron Burr take power or leaving the presidency empty and the nation in crisis.

The impact of that election on the Electoral College was profound. Following the election, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was proposed and then ratified in 1804. That Amendment provided for electors to cast a specific ballot for president and another specifically for vice president. This change fundamentally altered the Framer’s plans. Never again would the vice president be the second-best person in the land to be president, but would be a person specifically chosen by a party to be a vice president.

This set the nation on the path toward the history of the vice presidency being filled with men who were often chosen to assuage a party rival or appeal to a section of the electorate, rather than being the next best person to assume the presidency.

The amendment also gave a final constitutional blow to the idea that electors would be free agents deliberating and discussing the merits of candidates and choosing someone they felt had the right character for office. Now the electors would be chosen because of their partisan leanings and they would vote, almost inevitably, for their faction’s candidates. The idea of the Electoral College being a deliberative body of statesmen and civic leaders was dead.

The next great change in the system occurred in the early 19th century when states began embracing a more “democratic” vision of politics and began choosing the electors through a direct vote of the people of their state.  By 1832, only South Carolina remained with a system whereby the state legislatures rather than the people through elections chose their electors and thereby their president.

Though the institution itself remains intact, the way the Electoral College actually functions is a world away from the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. Their president was to be chosen by the cool and sedate reflection of men of merit meeting together in their own states. Our presidents are chosen in the accumulated electoral votes from 50 democratic elections in the states as well as one in Washington, DC.

The specifics of how that system works today will be covered in the next installment.

Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center and host of the podcast Vital Remnants

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