Don't Know Much

The Electoral College–Not a Party School


The Electoral College is NOT a Party School

Grown men turn weak and stammer when asked who makes up the Electoral College. The subject of a once-every-four-years debate over its existence, the institution plods on, an enigma to those Americans who think the voters decide who will be president.

Here’s a quick video with a little background on the “electors.”

Like many creations of the American political system, the Electoral College was the result of a compromise. When the Framers sat down to write the Constitution in the summer of 1787 and figure out the rules for electing the president, there was only one certainty: George Washington would be the first president. As Ben Franklin told the delegates, “The first man at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”

One solution was allowing the legislature –Congress- to choose. Men who wanted to maintain separation of powers between the branches saw this as dangerous. Congress might too easily influence a president chosen by  legislators.

To most of us today, the obvious answer would have been direct election by the people. But this was opposed by many of the Framers.  They had legitimate practical concerns: how could a voter in Massachusetts know a candidate from Virginia or South Carolina in late eighteenth-century America? They also feared corruption and bribery. And delegates from small states feared being overwhelmed by more populous states.

But the Framers also feared that too much democracy was a dangerous thing. To some of them, democracy was one step away from “mob rule.” They also didn’t believe that most people had the education (or intelligence) to make a wise choice.

To maintain control over the presidential process, they came up with the idea giving each state presidential “electors” equal to the number of its senators and representatives in Congress. These “electors,” chosen by whatever means the separate states decided, would vote for two men. The candidate with a majority of electoral votes became president and the second-place finisher became vice president.

The fact that slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person meant slave states received electors out of proportion to their free, white population –providing a large measure of the “slave power” that meant that five of the first seven presidents were slaveholding, two-term presidents.

But the safety valve built into this plan was the agreement that if the electoral vote failed to produce a winner, the election would be sent to the House of Representatives, where each state would get a single vote. In an era in which political parties were disdained, the common wisdom was that after George Washington, no man could win the votes needed for election, and the real decisions would be made by the enlightened gentlemen in Congress.

Within a short time after Washington, two presidential elections failed to produce a victor and were sent to the House of Representatives. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, from the same party, received seventy-three electoral votes each. The election went to the House, which put Jefferson in the White House. Following this election, the voting for president and vice president was separated under the Twelfth Amendment.

Then, in 1824, Andrew Jackson led in the popular vote but failed to win a majority of electoral votes. In this case, the House of Representatives bypassed Jackson in favor of John Quincy Adams.

The popular vote winner has lost the election three more times. In 1876, Samuel J. Tilden beat Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote. But a controversial post-election commission gave Hayes  enough tainted electoral votes to seal the victory. Then again in 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost to Benjamin Harrison in the Electoral College. Finally in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote after the long recount battle in Florida and the Supreme Court decision that favored Bush.

Today, the Electoral College is 538 Electors, equal to the 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate, plus three electoral votes for the District of Columbia. (Residents of Washington, D.C. did not vote for President until ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961.)

And who are the mysterious electors? These people, who cannot be members of Congress, are mostly party loyalists and state elected officials selected by their state political parties to fulfill the largely ceremonial task of casting the electoral votes that were decided on Election Day. States have their own rules as to how Electors must vote.

The “Electoral College” is administered by the National Archives and Records Administration  which maintains a website providing more detail about electors and state-by-state rules that govern them.

You can read more about Election history and the Constitutional Compromises in Don’t Know Much About History and America’s Hidden History.

The newly revised, updated and exapnded edition of the New York Times Bestseller now in hardcover from HarperCollins

Don't Know Much [email protected] History (2011 Revised and Updated Edition)




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