18th Century

The Electoral College

Have a drink with: The Electoral College
Neither elected, nor a college. Discuss.

Ask them about: Any December plans?


Most people hadn’t though much of the Electoral College before the contested Bush-Gore election in 2000, and many assumed that up to that point in American history it had mostly been a smooth, rubber-stamp affair. In truth, before 2000, seventeen elections ended in Presidents elected without a majority of the popular vote, and some scholars have figured out that minor vote shifts – a matter of 75,000 votes or fewer – could have changed the result in half of the elections for which data is available. (see detail here and here)*

So what did the founders mean when they set up this odd institution to elect the President? The Electoral College emerged from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which the founders were justifiably pissed off at having to spend their entire summer indoors in Philadelphia.

After long weeks of gridlock and argument over the structure of the Congress for our not-yet-unwrapped nation, there was no break in the fighting between small states and large. The Virginia Plan based the structure of Congress on state population, while the New Jersey Plan insisted each state have equal representation in the legislature. The Connecticut Plan won the day with the suggestion that one house be based on population and the other on equal allocation across states.

Then someone broke the news that they had to figure out how to elect the President, and it was late August by this point. Everyone could agree on one thing: we don’t want to repeat THAT whole mess again, plus we are running out of states after which to name proposals. Can we make the president thing easier? Yes.

There were a few questions guiding the “Committee of Eleven” that was tasked with figuring out election methods. Should Congress directly elect the President? Well, that makes it hard for the chief executive to be truly independent.

How about flat popular vote? Some liked that idea, but wondered: given human nature and the limited reach of 18th century communication technology, can the people be fully informed about every candidate? (Or, more pessimistically, can the people be trusted with important matters? Alexander Hamilton may or may not have have used that line about the public being “a great beast,” but he definitely called the masses “shapeless, huge and blind.”)

There was Southern panic over the fact that, in a popular vote, its disenfranchised slave population would result in subordination of the South to Northern voting interests. And discussion of the urban-rural interest divide is by no means unique to the 21st century.

And so the committee proposed an intermediary in the election process, a college of electors based on that recently-agreed congressional apportionment – with a caveat that if there was no candidate with an electoral majority, Congress would handle final selection from among the top five vote-getters.

In 1787, a few things were clear and relevant: the founders knew George Washington was going to end up as America’s first president no matter what anyone did or said; they really wanted this Convention OVER for chrissakes; and they actually pretty much figured the House was going to be doing the heavy lifting most of the time down the road (to use modern structural analogy, they set up the electors to nominate candidates, with Congress doing the real voting).

So the Constitutional language came to be:

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.

This worked all right until George Washington opted out of a third term, the Federalists got riled up and it became clear that America was becoming a nation of major national parties. Almost every election since has had concerns, contests or quirks.

Fun Facts:

The nation’s first “faithless elector” was Samuel Miles, who though a Federalist voted for Thomas Jefferson instead of his party’s candidate John Adams in 1796.*

Winner-take-all voting applies in all states except Maine and Nebraska, which split their electoral votes according to a statewide and county-based popular vote breakdown.

Slavery and the horrid Three-Fifths Compromise played a significant role in the distribution of electoral votes – the ability to count slaves towards population totals, even at a demeaning fraction, gave Southern states a strong advantage in the Electoral College.

The current state of confusion may lead you to believe that Electoral College mishaps are the rarest of birds, but we’ve had our share of wonky elections:

  • Elections in 1800 and 1824 both went to contingent election, in the process implicating and refining the electoral college process. An ugly deadlock between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson in 1800 led to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, requiring separate voting for President and VP. The 1824 election featured four candidates – and thanks to the alleged Corrupt Bargain, Jackson won the popular vote but lost to John Quincy Adams.
  • In 1876, popular vote winner Samuel Tilden lost by one electoral vote to Rutherford B. Hayes after a contentious dispute over a handful of Southern states. This election involved allegations of voter fraud, racism, sour grapes and the Compromise of 1877, by which Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the south (clearing the way for Jim Crow) if the Democrats would please stop filibustering the election’s confirmation process.
  • In 1888, Benjamin Harrison wins the electoral vote thanks to the heft of states like New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Grover Cleveland carried the popular vote handily, particularly in the south, but didn’t win where it counted most with the electors since the popular overage lay in “wasted” votes – selling past the close in states where he’d already secured the electoral vote. He ran again four years later and beat Harrison in both popular and electoral voting.
  • In 1960, Nixon and Kennedy were neck-and-neck in the popular vote according to the official count, but as there were problems of how votes in Alabama should be counted, pundits have suggested that the official counts could have been off, and as little as 13,000 votes difference might have given Nixon the presidency.

Additional Reading:

* Longley and Peirce, The Electoral College Primer 2000 (charts taken from Chapter 2, p. 33-37)

Akhil Reed Amar, The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists, TIME, November 8, 2016 (Interview with Amar at Vox here)

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 68

Larry P. Arnn, Anti-Change: The Electoral College Is Anything But Outdated, The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2016

Yale Press, The Flawed Foundations of the Electoral College