You can find a succinct history of and explanation for the constitutionally established Electoral College at History, Art and Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. The fast facts found there do not, however, reveal the actual motivations for the creation of the indirect election of our country’s highest office.
Historians have proposed many reasons as to why the framers didn’t support direct election. The list includes the belief that only the most savvy and government-connected men could understand the issues and the candidates due to limited communication systems within the physical expanse of such a large nation (thirteen whole states at the time). The list also includes the distrust of political parties and the fear of campaign shenanigans as reasons to keep the choice for president out of the common man’s direct reach.
According to Joe Miller of FactCheck.org in The Reason for the Electoral College, constitutional convention members like James Madison were worried that direct election might result in the majority of citizens imposing their will on the minority. Rational observers might conclude that Mr. Madison’s concern should have been assuaged by the constitutional protections that were being simultaneously inserted into the same foundational document. It might also occur to some that letting states cast the ultimate ballots instead of citizens could result in the same “tyranny of the majority” Madison claimed to be worried about.
A better understanding, however, of Madison’s push to prevent a “one man, one vote” system can be found by referring to Akhil Reed Amar’s account in The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exist. According to Amar, Madison actually had his fellow Virginians and the other southern “citizens” in mind when he referenced “the minority” because, since only white men could cast ballots, the South would have fewer votes than the North, given the demographics of the time. But it had already been decided that states could include three-fifths of every slave (who of course couldn’t vote), in their representative calculus, giving states with high slave populations more electoral votes. Consequently, shifting the election of the president from individual voters to a group of hand-picked electors would allow the elector-heavy southern states to potentially prevail in the selection of a national leader for the foreseeable future. Genius!
The rules regarding the electoral college have since been modified; once to separate the election of President and Vice President and again to allow the District of Columbia to participate in the game, though the federal government has never dictated how states should implement their electoral systems (leaving most to opt for the “winner takes all” method which has—for the fifth time now—allowed a candidate who lost the popular vote to become president). We also subsequently decided to let women and black people (of all genders), cast votes…presumably to include votes for president. But the electoral college is still a mechanism that—whether devised for the best of reasons or the worst—is anachronistic, elitist and a cloaked extension of the “monarch knows best” system that this country’s original war was fought to escape.
It is now 2017. Regional differences and motivations still exist, political parties and candidates still engage in shenanigans and the physical expanse of this large nation has only grown. But we are also in an age of the twenty-four hour news cycle combined with the instantaneous sharing of information on the universally accessible internet. Fears of fake news and alternative facts should be taken seriously, but it is my hope that every voter is diligent in their research and understanding of issues and of candidates. It’s true that democracy is not perfect, is not always pretty and does not always produce the expected results. It is, however, the system we hold out to the world and to our own citizens as the optimum form of government and the system we claim to defend with both lives and treasure.
The elimination of the electoral college is not a partisan issue. While conservatives have yet to experience the sting of a college defeat despite a popular victory, given the current polarization of the U.S. electorate, each presidential election is a mis-carriage of democracy just waiting to happen.
And at the risk of fanning the flames of partisanship, I am inserting a passage from Joe Miller’s article referenced above as an example of irony that even some republicans will surely acknowledge:
“As Alexander Hamilton writes in ‘The Federalist Papers,’ the Constitution is designed to ensure ‘that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.’ The point of the Electoral College is to preserve ‘the sense of the people,’ while at the same time ensuring that a president is chosen ‘by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.’”
The electoral college is not going away on its own. It is part of the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The process for repeal is found in Article 5 and is as follows:
- An amendment to the 12th amendment must be proposed to Congress where both houses must approve with a two-thirds vote. OR Two-thirds of the state legislatures must call on Congress to convene a constitutional convention. THEN
- Three-forth’s of the state legislatures must approve (ratify) the amendment proposed by Congress.
You can see that it takes the approval of both your U.S. representatives and your State representatives, but as a reminder, ALL of them represent YOU.
Ratification of the amendment must occur within 7 years of the proposal. Since it would certainly be procedurally crippling to force political parties and presidential candidates to adjust their “50 State” strategies to “321 million voter” strategies by 2020, it follows that 2024 would be the best target for implementing the truly democratic system of electing the leader of the free world. Contact your U.S. and State representatives today to request that they propose the abolishment of the Electoral College by amending the 12th Amendment.