Hazem Salem

Hazem Salem

In most presidential democracies, presidents are elected by popular vote or by parliament. Where, then, does the Electoral College come from, and why did our Founding Fathers not opt for one of these methods?

To answer this question, we need to consider the incentives and constraints that faced our Founding Fathers. For instance, electing the president by direct popular vote had the advantage of popular participation, but it potentially favored states with large populations.

Mass participation also was beset by the challenge of providing adequate information about candidates to voters spread all over the country.

Electing the president by members of Congress would preserve the balance between states that was reached in the Connecticut Compromise at the Constitutional Convention. Members of Congress also were more likely to be well-informed. However, having a president beholden to Congress might weaken the presidency's independence should the president plan to seek re-election.

The Electoral College was designed in response to such complex considerations. The solution was to have each state choose a number of electors equal to its representatives in Congress, including its two senators, to vote for president.

The electors, in the words of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers No. 68, were to be “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.”

Additionally, being a small group, they would “be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

Eventually all states opted to choose electors through a popular vote, guaranteeing a role for popular participation. Once chosen, the electors would meet in their own states to avoid congregating in one place where they could be subject to intimidation or manipulation.

Each elector cast two votes for president, one for a candidate from outside his own state. The votes were delivered to Congress to be counted. The candidate receiving an absolute majority of the vote would become president, and the runner-up vice president.

This basic design was refined by the 12th Amendment in 1804, which separated the vote for president from the vote for vice president. The aim was to avoid situations in which the winner of the presidency would have to serve with a runner-up from an opposing faction as his vice president. Imagine that scenario today and you can understand the wisdom of the 12th Amendment.

Over the next few decades the rise of large national political parties transformed the role of the electors. The independent electors described by Hamilton were replaced by electors nominated by political parties and pledged to support that party’s candidate. The pledged elector became the norm, and many states would even establish penalties for “faithless electors” who broke their pledge.

In addition, all states converged on a similar model of allocating electors to a single candidate on a winner-takes-all basis — with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine.

Today, the number of electors is 538, equal to 435 representatives, 100 senators, and three electors for Washington, D.C.

This brief and incomplete history helps to explain some of the features and outcomes of our unique process of electing a president.

When we vote in presidential elections we still are voting for electors, not for the presidential candidate. And yet the vast majority of us would not recognize the names of the electors we voted for. Their names often do not even appear on the ballot.

This also explains why a candidate can win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. This outcome —seen in this year’s election — causes the most controversy and sparks regular debate over the merits of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College fails to uphold one of the most fundamental principles of democracy: the equal value of each citizen’s vote. Allotting each state two electors for its two senators means the number of a state’s electors are not strictly proportional to the size of its population. The result is that the least populated states are over-represented in the Electoral College relative to the most populated states.

Reforming or abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, however, which appears unlikely for the foreseeable future.

There are some possible reforms that could occur at the state level. States could agree to allot their electors to the winner of the popular vote — as proposed by the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Alternatively, states could abandon the winner-takes-all method of allotting electors and divide them in proportion to each candidate’s total votes in the state.

Both of these proposals would potentially remove the incentive for candidates to spend disproportionate amounts of time or money on a handful of swing states. The proposals would also mean that the millions of votes cast in solid red and blue states would no longer be “wasted” — consider that in this year’s election 4 million citizens in California voted for the Republican candidate, and a similar number in Texas voted for the Democratic candidate.

There are no easy answers. The best we can do is be inspired by the spirit of our Founding Fathers and not shy away from seeking creative solutions to complex issues

Hazem Salem is an adjunct professor in the department of history and political science at York College.

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