'delanceyplace.com 3/31/10 - how we got the electoral college'

In today's excerpt - in the United States the President is elected by an Electoral College, which was the bizarre and contorted invention of the framers of the Constitution, intended as a compromise between those who objected to the legislature electing the President, and those who objected to the people electing the President. This unsatisfying arrangement was partially overcome later as a party system emerged—and as states began to mandate that their Electors cast their ballots solely for the candidates who won the most votes in that state:

"The delegates [to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia] spent much of the next week and a half in a puzzled discussion of how to elect or appoint the single person who would wield the 'executive power.' There were two obvious possibilities—election by the legislature or by the people—and one contrived alternative that grew attractive whenever the defects of the other methods became apparent, which they quickly did. Election by the legislature had the advantage of leaving the choice up to the nation's best-informed leaders. But because the framers were intent on making the president politically independent of the legislature, the victorious candidate could serve only a single term, lest he become a toady to a dominant faction—which would seem to deny the republic the potential benefit of experience gained in office.

"Popular election posed two major problems. First, it would clearly favor candidates from northern states, because with a single national constituency, the enslavement of much of the southern population would always make the free citizens of the North a majority of the electorate. More important, the framers worried that voters would naturally prefer candidates from their own states and ignore contenders from others, making it difficult for anyone to gain a majority without some costly cycle of repeated elections.

"In response to these doubts, the framers hit upon the idea of appointing a select corps of electors, well-informed citizens who might make a knowledgeable choice without gaining any lasting political influence of their own. For a moment this notion became almost a panacea—until the framers started doubting that these electors 'would be men of the first or even the second rank.' The delegates finished this round of debate where they began it, with an executive appointed by the legislature for a single term of seven years.

"[Weeks later] the curiously named Committee on Postponed Parts ... created the electoral scheme that came to be known as the Electoral College—a college that could never meet as one deliberative body, but could gather only as separate faculties in the individual states, vote on the same day, and then disband. The electoral scheme combined the two major decisions on representation, which the framers, their tempers having cooled, were now more disposed to treat as compromises than they had been in July. Each state would get a number of electors equal to its total membership in Congress. The most populous states would have the advantage in promoting the candidates they favored, or at least in making front-runners. In the event that no candidate received a majority of electoral votes—a situation which many delegates thought would be the rule rather than the exception—the choice would devolve on the Senate, where the states would vote equally. Incumbents would also be free to seek reelection.

"But here lay a problem: the Senate and president were now going to share the treaty-making and appointment powers. How could the president exercise independent judgment when decisions in these areas needed the approval of the body that had already elected and would possibly reelect him? It took three days of debate for Roger Sherman to hit upon an ingenious scheme: let the House select a president from the five leading candidates to emerge from the first round of electoral voting, but require its members to vote as delegations rather than individuals, so that each state would have one vote. This allowed the Electoral College to replicate the earlier compromises over representation while allowing the president to remain politically independent of the Senate.


Jack N. Rakove


The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence


Belknap Harvard




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