A (Not So) Brief History of the Electoral College: Part 2

Behind Enemy Lines
Photo Courtesy: HillTalk.com 
Editor's Note: Our own Nat Paul takes a deep dive into the Electoral College and why it exists - this is the second of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.

As we went through in Part 1, the Electoral College was created as a compromise between various interest groups during the Constitutional Convention. Though one of the most radically democratic systems of government succession at that time, it is now the opinion of some that it is considerably less democratic and more complex than most other electoral systems today. It has also undergone several significant changes since its inception in the 1780s and it barely resembles the organ envisioned by Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers.

Today, answers to even basic questions about the Electoral College are, regrettably, obscure ,  though no less vital to a complete understanding of American electoral politics. 

How were the Electors originally chosen, and by whom?

Article II of the Constitution leaves the selection of Electors to the discretion of the individual states. When the Constitution was first adopted, some states chose their Electors by popular vote (albeit with very limited suffrage, as voting rights have also evolved to present), with political parties attaching potential Electors to their Presidential candidate of choice on the ballot before the general election. But most originally conferred this power upon the state legislature. Since the state legislators were elected by the eligible voters of their districts, those voters’ voices were heard indirectly through the legislator’s vote for Elector. This method protected the interest of the nation’s elites (from among whom the Electors would be named), while still incorporating participation from the state’s voting populace.

The process varied considerably between states, with only a few common rules proscribed by Article II. For instance, the Constitution directs the number of Electors for each state (one for each congressman and senator representing the state) and that Electors may not be current office-holders. Consequently, Electors were (and are) usually either former elected officials or relatives of elected officials, or other partisan-affiliated politicos.

How are the Electors chosen now?

Over time, every state adopted the popular vote as its means of choosing Electors. If you look at the ballot in a given general election, you would see that voters actually vote for Electors for a Presidential candidate, not for the candidate him/herself. In each state, the popular vote is used to determine which candidates' pre-determined set of Electors will represent the state in the Electoral College.

Forty-eight states assign Electors based on the statewide majority vote (or plurality vote, if nobody receives 50%). and award their electoral voters on a “winner-take-all” basis, effectively nullifying many citizens’ votes who cast their ballot for the minority candidate in their state. The two outliers, Maine and Nebraska, award two of their Electoral Votes to the state-wide winner and the rest to the winner of each respective congressional district. For example, President Barack Obama won one electoral vote from Nebraska in 2008 after winning the popular vote in one district there.  At a glance this distinction looks arbitrary, but the difference is deceptively meaningful.

What dictates the way that the Electors vote?

Despite the widespread expectation that the Electors vote for the declared candidate of their party, they are under no such obligation. In Federalist Paper No. 68, Alexander Hamilton extolled the virtues of independent Electors, unbound by outside forces, and free to vote in accordance with their own expertise and conscience. He maintained that the Elector’s prerogative should not be subject to the whims of the masses or the interests of those in power. This dynamic led to states frequently splitting their Electoral Votes between candidates in the early days of the Republic.

This, too, has undergone significant change since its inception. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted “Faithless Elector Laws”. These laws vary in their specifics: some impose penalties for "faithless" electors, while others cancel "faithless" votes. Their common goal, however, is to limit the discretion of the Elector and bind his vote to the state popular vote. When a majority is clearly present, these laws generally uphold “the will of the people”. When the state is won by a mere plurality of votes, these laws subvert the will of the undecided majority in favor of the largest minority.

The Constitution allows states to decide their own means of choosing Electors, but makes no provision for dictating their Electors’ votes. Decades of accepted precedent eliminate any possibility of the current laws ever being deemed unconstitutional, but do not excuse the current patchwork of laws from scrutiny. The Electoral College is functional, in that it consistently produces a winner. However, the institution’s increasingly frequent divergence from the popular vote remains problematic, and a "candidate" for reform.
Share on Google Plus

About Nat Paul

To learn more about the author, check out the "About Us" page. Behind Enemy Lines Radio is a national Award-Winning radio show / podcast broadcasting live out of the belly of the Democratic beast - "The People's Republic of" New York City that airs on multiple radio stations as part of the Talk America Radio Network. It is also an "Insider" column on Newsmax featuring show hosts Gene Berardelli and Russell Gallo. The show is also available on multiple networks across the internet, with more being added regularly.

Get Your Free Estimate