Why does the US have the electoral college?

Randy Conover
By Randy Conover

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the delegates had many long and heated debates. One such was over how the President should be elected.

The hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia was a critical time and place in American history. There met for the purpose of “revising the Articles of Confederation” a group of American men, perhaps the most aware of history of any ever to be assembled at any time in the timeline of our nation.

They came from twelve of the thirteen recently-freed states (Rhode Island chose not to send delegates). Their task was to “fix” the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the document which had formed the national government which had seen our new-borne nation through the Revolutionary War, but could not sufficiently frame a peacetime government. It was soon apparent that the Articles could not be “fixed,” but that a whole new form of government must be created. What emerged from this summer meeting was and is truly unique in human history. Never before had anything even close been created for the governance of a people.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the “governing” body was essentially a single branch – Congress. It had only one “house,” it was “unicameral.” There was no judiciary, such items requiring “judicial” action generally came before a committee of the Congress. There was also no real executive, the closest was the “President of the Congress,” essentially the chairman presiding over the meetings of Congress.

So when it was decided to change the basic form of the national government, and create new governing offices, one major such was the office of President. One of the early major arguments over the Presidency was how should this person be chosen. Between July 10 and July 16, over 60 votes were taken on this point alone! Feelings were so intense that two of the New York delegates left the Convention, never to return! Despair was no doubt looming over the other delegates. George Washington wrote during this period, “ I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in this business.”

Interestingly, perhaps the most controversial aspect of our American system of elections still argued today is our way of electing the President (and Vice-President since the adoption of the 12th Amendment in 1804).

But, just what were these men arguing over? What were they considering that caused such difficulty? It is simple, choosing the President, isn’t it?…Well…No.

Many ideas were put forward. Among the most strongly considered (and argued) were proposals letting the Congress choose the President, those letting the people of each state choose the President, more letting the people of each state choose electors who then choose the President, still others letting the state governors choose the President, and finally those letting the Senate make the choice.

As discussions proceeded, one by one the suggested means of Presidential selection were eliminated. The delegates reasoned that if the Congress or the Senate selected the President, he would be under their control and unable to function as an independent branch of government. Likewise, should the state governors be the selectors, the states would have control, again eliminating the independence intended in the executive branch. All of these would defeat and eliminate the delegates’ system of “checks and balances,” their desired means of preventing any one branch of the new “federal” government from becoming overly powerful, “balance” of power being a “check” limited by the other equally powerful branches. Likewise, while another “check” was of the states over the entire federal organization, the power of any one, or group of, state(s) would be also “checked” from becoming overly dominant.

Remember, these men, and the young nation they represented, had just been through an extended war against the tyranny of an overly powerful central government in far away Great Britain, and they were not about to give up their newly-won liberty and independence.

So, why not just let the people vote into office the President. After all, America is a democracy, isn’t it? Well…Once again, no, it isn’t. It is a Constitutional Republic. We, the people elect representatives, who then make our laws and operate our government, all safe-guarded by strict limits placed upon them by the Constitution.

These men who were delegates to the Constitutional Convention were students of history. They had learned lessons from societies of the past, including the strengths and weaknesses of their forms of government. One such form which they had studied was democracy. They had seen through history many attempts at “pure democracy,” and how each time it had been tried, it ultimately failed. Often, this failure of having all the people vote on all proceedings of the government had led to a charismatic character enchanting the people into electing him leader, and his granted powers soon leading to a corrupt dictatorship, stealing liberty from the people.

“He was against a popular election. The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men…” (Elbridge Gerry, delegate from Massachusetts)

“A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union, and acting in concert, to delude them into any appointment.” (Elbridge Gerry)

“It has been proposed that the election should be made by the people at large; that is, that an act which ought to be performed by those who know most of eminent characters and qualifications should be performed by those who know least.” (James Madison, Virginia, the “Father of the Constitution”)

Thus popular, direct elections of the President was determined to be a history-demonstrated very real danger to liberty. The delegates wanted to avoid this situation at all costs!

No, a better system had to be developed. One which kept the concept of “checks and balances” intact, while allowing the people a say in choosing their leaders and forming their government.

Emerging from this came our “Electoral College.” They wrote:

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.” (U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1)

Later, problems with the original system of choosing the President emerged during the election of 1800, so the amendment process was used to further clarify:

“The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President, and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate…” (U.S. Constitution, Amendment XII)

Not only had the delegates made “checks and balances” in the creation of the “Electoral College” system of choosing the new President, the Electors did not have to vote for the candidate receiving the highest popular vote by the people, they were free to vote into office whomever they deemed the best for the nation. It was felt that the state legislatures would find prominent citizens to be voted for by the people as Electors. These prominent citizens were far more likely to know the candidates for President than the average voting citizen, and therefore less likely to be deluded into voting into office a candidate with undesirable intents. The Electors were also “checked” in that they had only one limited mission, to use their likely superior knowledge about the candidates (while considering the desires of the general voting populace as indicated in the popular vote), to elect the best person to the office of President. After that very limited power, they were finished. They were granted no further powers, but were again with the general citizenry of the nation.

The opportunity for “collusion” among the Electors was limited by requiring them to vote in their respective states, rather than in a national gathering place as a convention. This eliminated the opportunity for the charismatic to have their way among the Electors. They were further to meet and vote on the same day across the nation. Remember that travel and communication were very limited and much slower in 1787 than in today’s America. There were no telephones, radios, Internet, etc., available back then.

Thus, the Founders gave us a system of choosing the President (and Vice-President) with built in “checks and balances” which allows for the best possible opportunity for our nation to be led by the most morally-strong and capable leader(s) available. Unfortunately, the development of political parties among other factors, have served to weaken what we were given. But that is another story, for another day.

Randy Conover is a retired school teacher. He lives in Clermont County.