The Electoral College was not designed to protect rural interests
“A good compromise leaves everybody mad.” — Bill Watterson
The Electoral College was a compromise. Most of us know this. As far as I can tell, none of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought that the final version of the Electoral College system was the best possible method for electing the president —it was just the compromise that they were willing to agree to.
I will begin by saying what the Electoral College was not.
- It was not intended to protect the interests of small states.
- It was not intended to protect the interests of rural voters.
- It was not intended to insure elections were resolved quickly.
- It was not introduced as an alternative to a popular vote.
What was it? Simply an expedient compromise to try to reduce the power that Congress would have over the president.
The small states demanded power — but not through the Electoral College itself!
One of the lesser-known parts of the United States presidential election system is known today as the House contingent election. If no single candidate achieves an outright majority in the Electoral College (currently 270 out of 538 votes), the election is decided among the top three candidates in the House of Representatives.
However, the House of Representatives does not vote using its usual rules. Instead, each state’s delegation casts a single vote, meaning that in the House contingent election, Delaware and Rhode Island have as much of a say as Virginia and Massachusetts.
The Framers expected large states to dominate the Electoral College. (They were correct, though for the wrong reasons.) What we now know as the House contingent election was designed to balance that, with small states holding the balance of power thanks to the one-state one-vote rule.
Most, though not all, of the Framers thought contingent elections would happen on a regular basis. In the debates at the Constitutional Convention, George Mason went as far as to predict it would happen “nineteen times of twenty.” (In practice, the House has thus far elected the president twice out of fifty-eight elections.)
Among those who felt they would happen frequently was Roger Sherman. He and many other small-state delegates were unwilling to agree to the use of the Electoral College until it was combined with a one-state one-vote contingent election by Congress. The earlier versions of the Electoral College didn’t include this key feature — and were voted down.
It’s unlikely that Roger Sherman and other small-state delegates would have been willing to support the Electoral College system if they had known how rare contingent elections would be.
This had nothing to do with protecting rural voters
Another myth about the Electoral College is that it was designed to protect the interests of rural voters. Presumably, this myth originates with the mistaken notion that the Founding Fathers intended to protect small states’ interests with the Electoral College, linking small states to rural voters.
At the time that the Constitution was written, the population of the United States was over 90% rural. There were only 31 cities with a population of 2500 or more. North Carolina, the fourth-largest state, didn’t have any. Philadelphia and New York City, the two largest urban centers, respectively accounted for less than 10% of the population of Pennsylvania and New York.
The most urbanized state was a small one — Rhode Island, with 20% of its population living in Providence and Newport. In 1790, there was no relationship between the size of a state and its level of urbanization. Today, the largest states all have large and significant urban populations.
So, in summary, we have the fact that the Electoral College wasn’t designed to protect small states, and that small states weren’t linked to rural voters. There was no link whatsover between the Electoral College and a desire to protect rural voters.
The Framers didn’t try to protect rural voters at all
With urban voters making up less than 10% of the population, protecting the interests of rural voters at the expense of urban voters was not an immediate concern for anyone familiar with the demography of the country. Nevertheless, it did come up one time during the Constitutional Convention, and the Framers collectively decided that urban voters deserved an equal say.
On August 7th, 1787, Gouverneur Morris proposed restricting the right to vote for representatives in Congress to landowners, a move that would have effectively disenfranchised many urban voters. After some debate, Benjamin Franklin made one of his rare speeches, drawing on his status as elder statesman to put the motion thoroughly to rest.
This is the only time that the Framers seriously considering putting the interests of rural voters above urban voters … and they decided against doing so.
Why an Electoral College at all?
The Constitutional Convention happened from May 28th to September 17th, 1787, a span of 112 days (almost four months). The delegates started working with an outline known as the Virginia Plan, which had the President (“National Executive”) chosen by Congress (“the National Legislature”). Eventually they settled on a fixed term of seven years, with a limit of one term.
The reason for the original single-term limit was simple and tied to the theory of checks and balances: Congress would have power over the president, and be able to pick a compliant executive who would not act as a check on their power. By making the President ineligible for re-election, it would shield the him from worrying about whether or not Congress would be willing to renew his appointment.
This would have been an American variation on what is now known as a parliamentary system. Throughout June, July, and August, this method was featured in almost every draft of the Constitution in progress. Several different versions of the Electoral College system were proposed and voted down, generally by large margins.
On September 4th, less than two weeks before the end of the convention, however, an acceptable version of the Electoral College system emerged from committee— one that left it open to each state’s government to choose how to appoint its electors and treated the Electoral College as a nominating body, with the House, voting by state delegation, having the final say.
This amended version of the Electoral College system, less democratic but more flexible, passed by a large margin. Most of the Framers were happy to finesse the conflict of interest problem.