What’s Up With the Electoral College?

constitutionWe revere the Founding Fathers for their wisdom in crafting the Constitution more than 200 years ago and for their gift of rights and liberties we continue to embrace and defend. But their same words and ideas gave us the electoral college system for selecting our president, so why are people eager to get rid of it now? 

by Blake Pembroke Sell

The morning after the election a good friend of mine posted on Facebook: “The working class has spoken!!!”  Voting results show Donald Trump was indeed elected on a swell of white, blue collar, working class people who, with their votes, made a statement about being left out of the country’s prosperity and their conservative vision for America.

Trump captured 57% of the electoral votes in a near sweep of states without ocean beaches, while nationwide a majority of over 2.3 million people voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Trump in the so-called popular vote.

The split between the electoral and popular votes has people questioning the validity of the electoral college system, once again.

Uproar over the Electoral College

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added her voice to the uproar, calling for an end to the electoral college system.  According to Pelosi and others, it’s an outdated idea that doesn’t respect the American principle of one person, one vote. This is the democratizing principle that places equal value on the vote of one uneducated coal miner and one Nobel prize winning economist.

At least six proposals to abolish the electoral college have been introduced in Congress, just since 1950. Hundreds of attempts to reform the electoral system have been attempted since the adoption of the Constitution. So why do we select our president by state voting through the electoral college process instead of voting nationwide through a popular vote?

Because that’s the way the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution wanted it, and wrote it.

Our Founding Fathers are revered: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, contributors or among 39 signers of the Constitution. We build monuments to them. Their wisdom in framing the Constitution and Bill of Rights are considered infallible gifts to the nation and future generations of Americans.

One thing the Founding Fathers didn’t do when they wrote the Constitution was to give the right to vote to anyone. Nobody. Surprising but true.

The framers of the Constitution believed individual states should have the primary role in determining representation to a national government. What they did was to leave it entirely up to individual states how to elect members of the House and Senate, and they established a system of electors, commonly called the “electoral college,” with the process of selecting the individual electors who would pick the president also left up to individual states. Really?

The U.S. Constitution (as written and still in effect)

scene_at_the_signing_of_the_constitution_of_the_united_states

1787, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 of the Constitution:
“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing (sic) Senators.”

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution:
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

How it Worked

The Founding Fathers believed in a system strong state rights and gave the individual states the Constitution al right to implement the electoral system as they saw for. But states being states with different opinions and agendas about many things, such as personal liberty and equality, each decided on their own who could vote for members of Congress, and how the electors, the people who would actually select the president, would be chosen.

One thing the states had in common was a complete disregard for the working class. In the first presidential election of 1788-89 and for the next 90 years, largely, the only people allowed to vote by the states were men who were White and who owned property.

The people who could vote were relatively few. Among those excluded from voting were most African Americans, Native Americans, women and white males who did not own land or a business that brought in about 1.5 times the annual salary of a Virginia schoolmaster.

Over time constitutional amendments removed land ownership, race and gender as barriers to voting in state elections. In 1870 the 15th Amendment specified you didn’t need to be a White man anymore to vote, you just had to be a man, and in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave the right to vote to women.

So by 1920, the amended Constitution of the United States gave everyone the same right to vote in state elections. There is still no such thing in the U.S. Constitution as a national election.

What the founders wrote, and what still remains through every amendment in the Constitution since, is that the president will be selected by electors appointed by the individual states, with each state deciding the process on its own of selecting the electors.

The language was tweaked by the 12th Amendment in 1804 and by the 24th Amendment in 1964, neither of which changed the language to allow Americans to directly vote for president.

Reasons for the Electoral System

So why did the Founding Fathers want it this way? “Democracy” was a dirty word in 1794 when the country and its Constitution was being formed, implying mob rule and government by the unfit. These are the words and ideas expressed by the Founding Fathers, not the distortion of 21st century liberals or conservatives.

johnadams

John Adams by Mather Brown, 1788

In the words of John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the United States:

“It is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters… every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”

In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the selection of the president should be:

 “…made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of president].”

There is no Constitutional concept of one person, one vote for president, just the opposite. What the Founding Fathers feared was a system that would allow selection of the president by democratic, or mob rule, where selection was not made through the deliberate consideration of a few selected people.

Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806

Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806

The Founding Fathers designed a presidential selection system in which the appointed electors would meet and deliberate over the important decision of selecting a president.

Alexander Hamilton wrote about the role of the presidential electors:

   “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 [tasks].”

In short, the founders and formers of the Constitution did not want the working class to have a say in selecting the president.

Electoral System Over Time

While the Constitution set up the system of the electoral college, each state decides through the Constitution how the electors will be chosen. In 1788 some states like Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts selected electors by popular vote, while in Connecticut, Georgia, South Carolina and New Jersey presidential electors were selected by the state legislatures.

In the U.S. Constitution electors are not bound to specific presidential candidates nor by any state election results. It is individual states that have created those rules and penalties for breaking them.

Individual states make up the rules on the selection and distribution of electors and how they are bound to the popular vote. What has developed over time is largely the so-called winner take all electoral votes, bound to the popular vote in each state, though, even today Maine and Nebraska still proportion electoral votes based on the popular vote.

Today, what we have is not the electoral college as designed by the Founding Fathers (and amended ever since) in the Constitution. Nor do we have selection of the president by national popular vote, a process that the founders saw as rule by the uneducated mob.

Instead, we have a system not intended by founders of the country. We have electors chosen and bound to the statewide popular vote, a system that is effectively majority rule on a state-by-state basis.

What Happened?

What the Founding Fathers feared was that through a populist vote by the uneducated and disenfranchised, rather than through the deliberation of a small group of electors most able to understand the issues, the nation would select an unfit president.

If we are to get back to accepting the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, whose values gave us rights we continue to fight for including the freedom of the press and the right to bear arms, we would not be talking about getting rid of the electoral college in favor of a nationwide election.

Instead we would be talking about removing state laws requiring selected presidential electors to vote for a specific candidate and removing the partisan selection process of those electors.

Blake Pembroke Sell, Dec. 1, 2016

Links:

The U.S. Constitution and All Amendments 
History of Attempts to Reform the Electoral College System
The Complete Federalist Papers Archive
Federalist Paper 68, Alexander Hamilton, The Mode of Electing the President

One comment on “What’s Up With the Electoral College?
  1. Flange says:

    Thoughtful analysis of the wacky electoral college system. Thanks.

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