The Electoral College Is Behaving Exactly as Intended

Dale Napier
Jun 17, 2019 · 7 min read

(To Thwart Democracy)

The Electoral College is only part of the problem of how we elect our presidents. Even if we eliminate it, two major problems remain: The likelihood of electing minority presidents (four out of the last ten), and the threat of the election being decided by the House of Representatives, where each state gets a single vote. Before we talk about that, let’s learn more about the Electoral College, which is a hold over from imperial Europe.

The biggest myth about the Electoral College is that it was intended to balance small states and large states. Sorry, but that’s not true. The big versus small fight was fought over the structuring of the U.S. Senate. The Founding Fathers wanted electors to choose the president because they didn’t believe the voters were capable of having the knowledge or wisdom to make the decision. In short, they were Federalists and burgeoning Republicans, not democrats of any stripe.

The battle for influence between large and small states began on May 29, 1787 in the Federal (“Constitutional”) Convention of 1787, with the introduction of the concept of a bicameral legislature by Edmund Randolph of Virginia. The Convention struggled for weeks over the exact structure of the two bodies. With the House based on proportional representation, giving the upper hand to large states, the makeup of the Senate was debated until a compromise to the Connecticut Compromise finally settled the debate on July 23: large states would be favored in the House, small states in the Senate.

Resolved that the representation in the second Branch of the Legislature of the United States consist of NA Members from each State, who shall vote per capita.

It was moved and seconded to fill up the blank with the word “Three” which passed in the negative. [Ayes — 1; noes — 9.]

It was moved and seconded to fill up the blank with the word “Two” which was unanimously agreed to [Ayes — 10; noes — 0.] [1]

There were no actual political parties at the time of the Constitutional Convention. Public figures began caucusing as Federalists and anti-Federalists only during George Washington’s first administration, and not seriously until the end of the second. Soon the anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, began calling themselves Republicans.

Although considerable differences arose they worked together well enough that Hamilton and later rival Madison co-wrote The Federalist Papers, along with John Jay, without publicly distinguishing who wrote what (we found out later). In Federalist 68 Hamilton laid out the case in no uncertain terms: The Electoral College was intended to suppress the evils of democracy.

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men more capable of analyzing the qualifications adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberations, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were property to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.[2]

The question now becomes, where did this peculiar idea, with its seemingly unprecedented name, come from? Aside from its stated anti-democratic purpose, what led the Founding Fathers to this particular device? Although never publicly discussed to this writer’s knowledge, there is only one precedent in history.

The original Electoral College was created to avoid primogeniture as the method of selecting new emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.

Holy Roman Electoral College

For those of you fuzzy on the details, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) in its primarily Germanic form began in the 9th century, formed of Charlemagne’s conquests, until Napoleon Buonaparte ended it militarily in 1804. It was a polyglot arrangement of abbeys, monasteries, kingdoms, principalities, earldoms, duchies, counties, and electorates, with a wide variety of ethnicities and languages. In those early days there were no true European nations as know them today, only the smaller subdivisions. What we call France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany today all had many kingdoms and duchies, all as independent as circumstances allowed.

Had primogeniture ruled in the HRE, that meant a single kingdom would control the entire empire forever. The political problem of keeping the empire together would be enormous because each limited power base could not, by itself, be dominant. No one was dominant, at least not until the Hapsburg dynasty took over in later centuries. An alternate arrangement was required that would allow for political balance.

For that purpose the Electoral College was formed [3]. The group originally included more than five dozen people — at various times bishops, abbots, monks, princes, earls, dukes, counts — who gathered for the sole purpose of electing a new emperor, usually but not always an experienced king, such as Charles V of Spain in 1519 [4]. On some occasions they chose the successor before he was needed. Even more rarely the ruling emperor would submit a son for consideration. Rarer than that, the son was sometimes chosen. The first such example came in 1169 when Henry VI, a four-year-old tot, was elected German king at the same time his father Frederick I Barbarossa was elected emperor. This allowed Henry to succeed without challenge in 1190. Vivente imperatore (during the emperor’s lifetime) selections occurred less than once a century, keeping the Electoral College a viable institution up to the end. [5]

THE PROBLEM WITH THE FOUNDING FATHERS’ SOLUTION

Madison and his fellow constitutional conventioneers were faced with eradication of primogeniture for an entirely different reason: They wanted to abolish all hereditary titles and offices. How to choose a “national executive” was thus a dilemma, because they were not democrats. They did not want the average voter to help make the choice. They wanted it more controlled. As long as they could control the choice of electors to the Electoral College, they could control the election, or so they thought. That approach almost ended in disaster for Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, which pointed up the Constitutional flaws in our method of selecting a president at the time.

In the first three elections, presidents and vice president did not run on a party slate. The Federalist and Republican parties were in the early stages of formation and took a while to coalesce. In the early elections the president and vice president were chosen on a single ballot, the first place and second place winners. The young nation was inexperienced with the political parties, which it was in the process of inventing. As a result the Founders assumed all candidates would have similar interests in the governance of the nation. Given such naivete it seemed to make perfect sense to put the winner and his chief rival together in one administration. [6] Imagine a Bush-Gore, Obama-Romney, or Trump-Clinton administration!

The young parties struggled to create slates. In 1800 incumbent president John Adams was paired with South Carolina Federalist Charles C. Pinckney, so that electors were pre-arranged to vote once for Adams and once for his “running mate”. It was a careful calculation that required enough votes for Adams to dominate but still leave the hope that Pinckney might come in second — a faint hope at best.

Jefferson was paired with Burr. The Republicans were not as careful as the Federalists: Jefferson beat the two Federalist candidates handily, but so did Burr — with the exact same number of votes as Jefferson. Due to the lack of a majority in the Electoral College, the election was decided in the House of Representatives.[7] Of the three elections that have ended up in the House (1800, 1824, 1876), all involved infamous political maneuvering that changed the course of American history.

As a result the 12th Amendment was passed in 1804 to change the method of counting votes, but the problems of the Electoral College and the involvement of the House remained[DN1] (and still remain).

THE ENTIRE PROBLEM

The Electoral College is only part of the problem of our method of selecting presidents. To fully democratize the presidential selection and eliminate the dangers of by-gone eras we must:

1. Eliminate the Electoral College completely and have the election decided by popular vote.

2. Require that the winner receive more than 50% of the vote.

3. If 50% is not achieved, do not send the election to the House of Representatives. Instead hold a run-off election of the top two vote getters, either one week or one month after the original election.

A Bad Alternative: State Remedy

Currently there is a movement to avoid Constitutional remedies [DN2] with state legislation that aligns the state’s electoral votes with the national leader, who may not hold a majority of the popular vote. Unfortunately, even if the movement succeeds and every single state adopts it, it still allows the election of minority presidents. In four of the last ten elections, presidents elected received less than 50% of the vote, and two of them lost to their opponents — but became president anyway. It is reasonable to speculate that a lot of our national political gridlock comes from the selection of presidents who do not command the support of most voters[DN3] .

Another Bad Alternative: Instant Runoffs

Many people consider democracy too messy and too much fuss to justify a second election. Those democratic minimalists prefer an approach they call “instant runoff[DN4] ”, which means the voter specifies a second choice, who is used if a runoff vote is called for.

This approach has numerous flaws, such as the likelihood that the voter is lucky to stomach voting for even one candidate, much less two. It also cheapens the run-off vote because without knowing who will be in the final election, we don’t know how we want to vote the second time. The knowledge of the original outcome shapes our thinking. In a recent three-way municipal election my “second choice” changed as a result of the campaign after the first vote — a perfect example of why instant runoffs are a bad idea.

The rest of the problem, of course, requires a Constitutional amendment to achieve. There is not enough political support to achieve it at this time. But how often do successful fights start out with overwhelming support? Not often, as legal marijuana enthusiasts can testify. The final step toward making America a true democracy is at hand. Let that step start now.

FOOTNOTES

1. Farrand, Max, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 1911. Vol. 2 at 91.

2. Hamilton, Alexander; Jay, John; and Madison, James, The Federalist, 1787. №68.

3. Wilson, Peter H., Heart of Europe, Harvard University Press, 2016. P. 305.

4. Wilson, p. 298.

5. Wilson, p. 307.

6. Weisberger, Bernard A., America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the first Contested Election, Harper Collins, 2011. Chap. 1.

7. Weisberger, Chap. 12.

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