Why Do We Have an Electoral College?
In the words of the Constitution's framers...


By Adam Keiper
(last text update on 13 Nov 00; some hyperlinks updated later as they expired)

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What were the framers of the Constitution thinking in the summer of 1787 when they gave us the Electoral College system responsible for the odd election in 2000? Is it true, as many reporters claim, that the Electoral College was designed simply because the country's founders did not trust the people? When you actually look at the record from the Constitutional Convention, you will find several different reasons for the design of the Electoral College system.

Some of the Constitution's framers actually did want the President selected by the general population.

The Electoral College was designed as a compromise between the interests of the big and small states.

It was also a compromise between the power of the new national government and the state governments.

Because communication between and among the states was limited, the Electoral College was a way to make sure candidates from everywhere in the nation were considered.

Having a popular election was seen by some as logistically impossible.

The framers did not anticipate the existence of political parties. Parties help shape the national debate and make picking candidates easier -- but without them, a system like the Electoral College would be necessary to sort through the chaos.
The Record from the Constitutional Convention

The main records we have of what transpired at the Constitutional Convention come from notes prepared by James Madison. Madison assiduously attended the convention and took careful notes, which he finally prepared for posthumous publication many decades later. (You can read Madison's notes online here.)

Madison's notes reveal a great deal about what the framers were thinking, and they are an invaluable resource for historians who want to understand the framers' intentions.

The records from the convention make it clear that the framers did not uniformly agree about anything, and it is plainly false to claim they didn't "trust" the people -- after all, the system they designed gave the general population power to pick the people who, in turn, selected Senators and Presidents.

Early Suggestions

There was a great deal of discussion early in the convention about how the President (the “National Executive," as he was usually called in Madison’s notes) would be selected. On 9 Jun 1787, for instance, Elbridge Gerry (who had signed the Declaration of Independence and would later be Madison’s Vice President) proposed that “the National Executive should be elected by the Executives of the States whose proportion of votes should be the same with that allowed to the States in the election of the Senate.”

That sentence should confuse you, especially the last part; remember, this was some time before the framers decided that the Senate would have two members from every state.

Gerry then argued that,

“if the appointment [of the President] should be made by the Natl. Legislature, it would lessen that independence of the Executive which ought to prevail, would give birth to intrigue and corruption between the Executive & Legislature previous to the election, and to partiality in the Executive afterwards to the friends who promoted him. Some other mode therefore appeared to him [Gerry] necessary. He proposed that of appointing by the State Executives as most analogous to the principle observed in electing the other branches of the Natl. Govt., the first branch being chosen by the people of the States, & the 2d. by the Legislatures of the States; he did not see any objection agst. letting the Executive be appointed by the Executives of the States. He supposed the Executives would be most likely to select the fittest men, and that it would be their interest to support the man of their own choice.”

How strange that suggestion seems 213 years later! And yet, that’s what Gerry wanted: let the governors pick the next president! Of course, you can see the problems with that suggestion right away, and so did Edmund Randolph of Virginia. (Randolph was one of General Washington’s assistants during the Revolution, and he had been in the Continental Congress. What’s more, he was the first U.S. Attorney General, and he moved over to the position of Secretary of State a few years later, also under Washington. I believe, however, that he became the very first Cabinet official to resign in a scandal, when, in 1795, a French minister made some sort of accusations against him.) According to Madison's notes...

“Mr. Randolph urged strongly the inexpediency of Mr. Gerry’s mode of appointing the Natl. Executive. The confidence of the people would not be secured by it to the Natl. magistrate. The small States would lose all chance of an appointmt. from within themselves. Bad appointments would be made; the Executives of the States being little conversant with characters not within their own small spheres. The State Executives too notwithstanding their constitutional independence, being in fact dependent on the State Legislature will generally be guided by the views of the latter, and prefer either favorites within the States, or such as it may be expected will be the most partial to the interests of the State. A Natl. Executive thus chosen will not be likely to defend with becoming vigilance & firmness the National rights agst. State encroachments.”

Randolph’s argument against letting the governors pick the President concluded with a rhetorical flourish. Remember, as you read it, that everyone at the convention worried about states battling the national government. “He could not suppose either that the Executives [that is, the Governors] would feel the interest in supporting the Natl. Executive which had been imagined. They will not cherish the great Oak which is to reduce them to paltry shrubs.”

Randolph and his rhetoric won the argument for the time being: every state voted against Gerry’s proposal, except Delaware, which was divided. Even Gerry’s own state of Massachusetts voted against it.

Should the People Pick the President?

That was June. They returned to the topic occasionally, and on July 17 it saw much more action. On that day, they were no longer debating whether the governors should pick the President. Now they were debating whether the Congress should pick the President or whether the choice should be left to the people. When you read that debate, you can hear the populism and elitism and sectionalism clashing and thrashing about, as they have ever since.

Gouverneur Morris (a New York lawyer): If the President is picked by Congress, “he will be the mere creature of the Legisl: if appointed & impeachable by that body. He ought to be elected by the people at large, by the freeholders of the Country... If the people should elect, they will never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character, or services; some man, if he might so speak, of continental reputation. -- If the Legislature elect, it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction; it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals; real merit will rarely be the title to the appointment.”

Roger Sherman (a Connecticut shoemaker who fell into politics and was actually on the five man committee with Jefferson that drafted the Declaration of Independence a decade earlier): “The sense of the Nation would be better expressed by the Legislature, than by the people at large. The latter will never be sufficiently informed of characters, and besides will never give a majority of votes to any one man. They will generally vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will have the best chance for the appointment. If the choice is made by the Legislre. a majority of voices may be made necessary to constitute an election.”

James Wilson (a Pennsylvania lawyer): "If the President were elected by the Legislre., he 'would be too dependent to stand [as] the mediator between the intrigues & sinister views of the Representatives and the general liberties & interests of the people.'"

Charles Pinkney (there were two Charles Pinkneys; both were from South Carolina): He “did not expect this question would again have been brought forward, an Election by the people being liable to the most obvious and striking objections. They will be led by a few active & designing men. The most populous States by combining in favor of the same individual will be able to carry their points. The Natl. Legislature being most immediately interested in the laws made by themselves, will be most attentive to the choice of a fit man to carry them properly into execution.”

Morris (again): “It is said that in case of an election by the people the populous States will combine & elect whom they please. Just the reverse. The people of such States cannot combine. If their [sic] be any combination it must be among their representatives in the Legislature. It is said the people will be led by a few designing men. This might happen in a small district. It can never happen throughout the continent... If the Executive be chosen by the National Legislature, he will not be independent of it; and if not independent, usurpation & tyranny on the part of the Legislature will be the consequence. This was the case in England in the last Center. It has been the case in Holland, where their Senates have engrossed all power. It has been the case every where... An election by the Legislature will bear a real likeness to the election by the Diet of Poland... Appointments made by numerous bodies, are always worse than those made by single responsible individuals, or by the people at large.”

Colonel George Mason (the famous Virginian) made a pragmatic argument: “A Government which is to last ought at least to be practicable. Would this be the case if the proposed election should be left to the people at large?” Mason in fact “conceived it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colours to a blind man. The extent of the Country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates.”

And then, after another comment from Wilson, came the climax of the debate, with the comments of Hugh Williamson of North Carolina. (He was no southerner, though - he was born in Pennsylvania, and had been a theologian, astronomer and math professor before he moved south. During the Revolution he was North Carolina’s surgeon general.)

Williamson was clearly looking toward the front of the room at General George Washington, who presided over the convention in the muggy ill-lit room, when he made his case in favor of having the Congress pick the President. “There are,” he said, “at present distinguished characters, who are known perhaps to almost every man. This will not always be the case. The people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succeed.”

Then, quite out of the blue, he pointed out that the largest state “will not be Virga. however. Her slaves will have no suffrage.”

He continued: “As the Salary of the Executive will be fixed, and he will not be eligible a 2d. time [for such was the plan then], there will not be such a dependence on the Legislature as has been imagined.”

So there followed on that day three votes. First they voted “on an election by the people instead of the Legislature.” That vote failed, with only one state (Pennsylvania) supporting a popular vote.

Second, a surprise idea! “Mr. L[uther] Martin moved that the Executive be chosen by Electors appointed by the several Legislatures of the individual States.” But even that vote, which seems so similar to our modern Electoral College, failed. Only Delaware and Maryland approved of it.

Finally, they voted on the words “to be chosen by the Nationl. Legislature.” It passed unanimously.

The Finalized Design of the Electoral College

They were still far from a final decision on anything at that time. Heck, they were still uncertain whether the president should stay in office for seven years or not.

On July 19 (two days later) they fought about it again. Madison made a heart-felt plea in support of the separation of powers (“There is the same & perhaps greater reason why the Executive shd. be independent of the Legislature, than why the Judiciary should: A coalition of the two former powers would be more immediately & certainly dangerous to public liberty”).

Oliver Ellsworth (a lawyer and judge from Connecticut) again proposed the “Electors” idea, and even came up with an idea for how Electors would be picked. They would be “appointed by the Legislatures of the States” in this ratio:

STATE POPULATION (people) ELECTORS (total number)
< 200,000 one
< 300,000 two
> 300,000 three

And then came the voting. First, they voted on whether the “Natl. Executive [shall] be appointed by Electors?” The northern states said yes, the southern states said no.

Pretty much the same results followed on a second vote to decide “shall the Electors be chosen by State Legislatures?”

But they indefinitely postponed the decision to approve Ellsworth’s ratio of electors.

Of course, they kept fighting over who the Electors would be. Williamson, the North Carolina polymath, said he “had no great confidence in the Electors to be chosen for the special purpose. They would not be the most respectable citizens; but persons not occupied with the high offices of Govt. They would be liable to undue influence, which might the more readily be practiced as some of them will probably be in appointment 6 or 8 months before the object of it comes on.”

And how would these Electors be chosen? On July 24, while they were debating other topics, someone proposed picking the Electors randomly: “Mr. Wilson then moved that the Executive be chosen every ___ years by ___ Electors to be taken by lot from the Natl. Legislature who shall proceed immediately to the choice of the Executive and not separate until it be made.”

So pick 'em with straws, and lock 'em up till they choose the President!

They bickered and bantered and battled over the presidential selection for months afterwards. They returned to the idea of a legislature-vote again. At one point they proposed having the president selected by a panel of six Senators and seven Representatives - in fact, that was quite late, on September 5. Finally, the next day, they settled the matter. They still argued about it, but now instead of arguing in terms of corruption and cabals and tyranny, they were speaking philosophically. In part, this was because Alexander Hamilton was present, and vocal. They discussed the “aristocratic complexion” of the office of the President and other such high-flying notions before knuckling down to the tedium of the selection process.

Should the Electors meet in a single place - the seat of the government? No, it was decided they should meet in their own states.

Should they “transmit” their votes to be opened “in presence of the Senate and House of Representatives”? Yes, where the President of the Senate shall open the votes from the states and count them.

Shouldn’t every Elector be required to vote for somebody not from his own state? Yes.

And as you know, the person with the most votes became president, and the person with the second-highest number became Vice President. (This was changed by the Twelfth Amendment after the confusing election of 1800.)

And thus was born the Electoral College, our presidential selection system that means (1) a person “elected” president by the people is not really elected until January 6 when the votes are counted, (2) if somebody dies, everything gets messed up, and (3) it is possible for a majority of the U.S. to vote for someone but that person can lose anyway.

Concluding Thoughts

The Electoral College is addressed in an essay written by Hamilton in support of the new Constitution (Federalist No. 68). It is appropriate to conclude with Hamilton's thoughts.

“Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means. Nor would it be found easy suddenly to embark them, dispersed as they would be over thirteen States, in any combinations founded upon motives, which though they could not properly be denominated corrupt, might yet be of a nature to mislead them from their duty.

“Another and no less important desideratum was, that the Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice.

“All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes, thus given, are to be transmitted to the seat of the national government, and the person who may happen to have a majority of the whole number of votes will be the President. But as a majority of the votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office.

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration.”

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