Electoral College Abolitionists Should Take Another Look at the Constitution
It’s the result of an elegant compromise between state and national interests
61% of Americans favor abolishing the Electoral College. Only 28% of Americans, however, have actually read the Constitution that created it. Fewer still understand why the Framers established it at all. Yet, many today rage against this allegedly anachronistic and unfair method of electing our president.
To understand the importance of the Electoral College, one must first understand the historical context in which the Constitutional Convention occurred. First — and this is absolutely critical — when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1776, each colony became an independent country. The delegates in no way wanted to form a unitary republic; the signers of the Declaration were throwing off a strong central power and they did not want to create a new one.
Second, after signing the Declaration, the Second Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation. Ratified in 1781, the Articles established a confederacy in which each of the states retained its sovereignty. This government did not form a unified republic, but a “firm league of friendship” that was more akin to the United Nations than the government Americans know today.
Third, the Articles did not work well — the states retained so much power that the confederal government was weak and ineffectual. It could not raise taxes, it could not regulate interstate commerce, and (most alarmingly) it failed to put down Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786. This impotence greatly troubled the soon-to-be Framers of the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, feared that if the states remained independent countries the Articles government would collapse and the American states “… would have frequent and violent contests with each other…” repeating the long and bloody history of Europe.
It was in this context that fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. The delegates soon, however, realized that revising the Articles would never do; they needed to create a unified republic if they were to save the American experiment.
What happened at the Constitutional Convention
As most readers will know, the Constitution that ultimately emerged was the result of extensive debate and compromise. Perhaps the most important of which was the debate over apportionment in the legislative branch of the new government. The delegates at the convention were deeply split concerning how seats in Congress should be divided between the states. Low-population states favored a system wherein the states had equal voting power. High-population states thought apportionment should be based on each state’s population. The large states argued that if each state had equal voting power, the people of their states would be underrepresented in Congress. The small states argued that if congressional seats were apportioned based on population they would, in effect, be ruled by the large states.
The convention found itself at an impasse until Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed what has become known as the Great Compromise; apportionment would be proportional to population in the House of Representatives (Article I, Section II), yet each state would have equal representation in the Senate (Article I, Section III). This ensured that citizens in large states were not grossly underrepresented, while also ensuring large states did not rule small states.
Interestingly, the delegates then used the same formula to determine the makeup of the electors in the Electoral College. Each state would get two electors, plus as many electors as they had seats in the House of Representatives (Article II, Section I).
When the delegates emerged with the completed Constitution in September of 1787, many of the old-guard patriots of the American Revolution felt the document was a betrayal of that revolution. These men — like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry — believed the Constitution to be a betrayal because it called for an “…alarming transition, from a Confederacy to a consolidated Government.” Clearly, if the Constitution was to be ratified, its proponents would have to convince skeptics in the states that ratification was not such a betrayal — that the states would not be surrendering too much of their sovereignty to a central power. This is one of the reasons why Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay crafted the Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788.
Hamilton explains the Electoral College
One of Hamilton’s contributions to this project, Federalist №39, makes this argument and explains the importance of the Electoral College. In this essay, Hamilton argues that the new Constitution maintains some federal characteristics (in which states wield power and are represented), while also embracing some national characteristics (wherein there is a stronger central government that represents the people, not the states). Hamilton puts it this way:
“The House of Representatives will derive its powers from the people of America; and the people will be represented in the same proportion, and on the same principle, as they are in the legislature of a particular State. So far the government is NATIONAL, not FEDERAL. The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies; and these will be represented on the principle of equality in the Senate, as they now are in the existing Congress. So far the government is FEDERAL, not NATIONAL.”
The reader can see that the election of the members of the House of Representatives was to be a national act because these seats were to be apportioned based on a state’s population. The election of senators, however, was to be a federal act because (before the 17th Amendment) state legislatures were to choose senators and each state had the same number of senators. This brings us, finally, back to the Electoral College.
According to Hamilton, the Electoral College is both a federal and national mechanism for electing the president:
“The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society…. From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many FEDERAL as NATIONAL features.”
The “compound ratio” Hamilton refers to is the Great Compromise enmeshed in the Electoral College. Again, each state gets two electors (a federal allotment of electors, just like each state gets two senators), plus however many representatives that state has in the House (a national allotment of electors).
The Electoral College is not an anachronistic and unfair method for electing the president. It simply prevents a few of the large states in the union from continually getting to elect the president — while at the same time ensuring that the large states do have a greater say in who the president is. The Electoral College is the result of a complex and delicate balancing act between the power of the states and the power of the people. If more Americans read our founding documents, they would get that.