American presidential elections are generally orderly affairs. People vote, somebody wins and life goes on. It’s our proud tradition of democratic self-governance.
And yet: The whole thing is controlled by a cabal of elites who actually pick the nation’s commander-in-chief, and who, theoretically, have the power to defy voters and stop Donald Trump from becoming America’s president.
We are talking, of course, about the electoral college, a 229-year-old contraption of democracy that the Founding Fathers had to cobble together because they couldn’t figure out a better way to pick presidents.
On Monday, 538 electors from the 50 states, including three from the District of Columbia, will convene across the country to cast the votes that decide who will sit in the Oval Office in January.
Trump is expected to win when the electors vote, even though more Americans cast ballots for Hillary Clinton. Trump was more popular in states that control more electoral votes. That’s the system. Regular Americans don’t get a direct say in who becomes president, and not all Americans’ votes are equal.
That’s the very intent of the electoral college, albeit a design forged from an 18th-century political struggle over how to balance freedom and slavery, elitism and populism, independence and accountability.
The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.
Let’s look back to 1787. The United States of America consists of 13 newly independent states that are bound together by the troubled Articles of Confederation. There are big states like Virginia and small states like Delaware. Some of them have slavery; some don’t.
At that summer’s constitutional convention, white men from 12 of those states fussed over how to make a new federal government where everybody (everybody like them, anyway) got an equal slice of the pie. Rhode Island declined to send a delegate to the constitutional convention.
The debate over how to pick the president actually started with how to create Congress. The congressional puzzle was this: If each state got an equal number of lawmakers in Congress, the small states would wield disproportionate power over the big states. But if states were given seats in Congress according to population alone, the big states’ huge delegations could just ignore the smaller states.
The founders split the difference by splitting Congress. The big states got more power in the population-based House of Representatives, and the small states got more power in the Senate, where each state got two votes. (The Southern slave states struck their own deal with the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise: Slaves would count as three-fifths of a person for the sake of political representation.)
Then it was time to create the presidency. Some delegates initially proposed that Congress pick the president, but others suggested a direct national popular vote.
“If the people should elect, they will never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character, or services,” said Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, proposing a popular-vote system, according to notes kept of the debates. “If the Legislature elect, it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction.” Another problem was that if Congress controlled who became president, the president could easily become Congress’ puppet.
But other delegates objected: Small states’ wishes could be ignored in a popular vote. It was the Congress problem all over again. “The most populous States by combining in favor of the same individual will be able to carry their points,” said Charles Pinckney of South Carolina.
Some of the delegates also thought regular people couldn’t keep track of everything going on and everybody running for office. “The extent of the Country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates,” said George Mason of Virginia. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said a popular vote was the “worst” option, as “the people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.”
Voter ignorance was also a form of bias that favored the big states, others argued: Confused voters would just pick “some man in their own State,” said Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
Then there was slavery, the stain that hung over everything. Although the Three-Fifths Compromise had given the slave states strengthened representation in the House of Representatives, slaves couldn’t vote — meaning that in a national popular election, Northern states would have more voting power than Southern states. “The latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes,” said James Madison of Virginia, a slave state.
But Madison still opposed Congress’ picking the president because it would break the separation of powers that allowed for checks and balances. Congress could then pass, as well as execute, “tyrannical laws” in “a tyrannical manner.”
The delegates toiled over a compromise. Initially, they also couldn’t agree on what a presidency would actually look like. Some suggested the president serve a single seven-year term, but others thought allowing reelection with shorter terms would encourage “good behavior” by the president.
One delegate suggested that voters be given three votes in a national popular vote so they could get around the problem of just picking someone from their own state. Another suggested giving each state a single vote in a joint session of Congress. It didn’t go anywhere.
Finally, inspiration: The Founders decided a special body of legislators would be formed each election for the sole purpose of casting votes for president, and each state would get members equal to the number of its representatives and senators in Congress.
Thus the electoral college was born, an invention designed to shield the job of the president from the ignorance of the people and the manipulation of elites in Congress.
The system later would be revealed to be not so good at selecting vice presidents, leading to the creation of the 12th Amendment to refine the process after a deadlocked election in 1800. And today, the electoral college is largely a rubber stamp to reflect the popular vote at the state level, sometimes to the frustration of Democrats in larger states who see their votes diluted (not to mention future candidates who would win the nationwide popular vote but lose the election, as happened with the election of George W. Bush, and now Trump.)
But at the time, Alexander Hamilton, of New York, hailed the electoral college as almost the only part of the new U.S. Constitution that escaped “severe criticism.” In 1788, Hamilton wrote, “I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”
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