There’s a trend where interest will spike, at least slightly, regarding the nature and the history of the Electoral College following a Presidential election. The rationale is fairly straightforward: when the election ends people (at least many) begin to look at the system which chose the new leader of the free world. By contrast, consider the focus of attention during the primaries and the election proper. The focus, in advance, tends to be on the candidates (their backgrounds, policies, beliefs, etc.), the sequence of events (ordering of primaries and caucuses, confirmation of the candidates at national conventions, and the election proper), and the expectations for potential outcomes. There is something very telling in this pattern, though, as some are often surprised that it isn’t the popular vote that carries the win – but the will of the Electoral College. Given the power the electors carry and the lack of prevailing knowledge of this system, it seems fitting to consider the origins and nature of it.
The Formation of the Electoral College
Where better to start, then, than the History, Arts, & Archives portion of the Unites States House of Representatives, given they devote a portion of their website to this precise topic? “Established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is the formal body which elects the President and Vice President of the United States. Each state has as many ‘electors’ in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress, and the District of Columbia has three electors. When voters go to the polls in a Presidential election, they actually are voting for the slate of electors vowing to cast their ballots for that ticket in the Electoral College.” So, to parse this out, the amount of weight a state carries is, primarily, based on its population. How so? Each state carries the same number of electors as they do Representatives and Senators in Congress. Each state carries two Senators, but the number of Representatives a state carries is based on their population.
Acting as the Middleman
Why, though, does our system of government place the power of selecting a national leader in the hands of what amount to political middlemen? “Originally, the Electoral College provided the Constitutional Convention with a compromise between the popular election of the President and congressional selection.” This explanation shows the division in thinking from the earliest days of our nation. Concerns were rampant that the average man couldn’t and shouldn’t pick the leader of a fledgling nation, but placing that decision entirely outside of the hands of the people would result in an isolated ruling class built of politicians. “One Founding-era argument for the Electoral College stemmed from the fact that ordinary Americans across a vast continent would lack sufficient information to choose directly and intelligently among leading presidential candidates. This objection rang true in the 1780s, when life was far more local. But the early emergence of national presidential parties rendered the objection obsolete by linking presidential candidates to slates of local candidates and national platforms, which explained to voters who stood for what.” The question that would seem to be implied, then, is why this framework is still used if (as the prior quote claims) political parties now provide a degree of expectation and insight into the minds of politicians. Add to that the leaps and bounds in technology that have given birth to the Digital Age, and we can see an environment now that provides both a framework for understanding (political party) and a methodology for educating oneself (the Internet). So – why continue this same process if, to some minds, it feels antiquated and dated?
Why Is It Still Around?
There are several viable answers for the continued reliance on the Electoral College, perhaps the most prominent of which is the difficulties inherent in changing the existing system. The framework of our nation is not built to change lightly or with ease, and generally those in power are not the ones most eager to change it. Why? Well – advocating for a change in the system that just secured your political party’s hold on power could be seen as diminishing the actual authority your political party can command. Regardless of which party holds power, there is little impetus to weaken one’s own standing. Additionally, while information is available for those with the time and means to seek it online, there is also an inordinate amount of misinformation on the Internet. And, of course, there’s the longtime strain of voter apathy in this country. Many citizens lack the interest or energy to do their own research, and even among those who do – it is easy to be misled or deceived. Sometimes the well of information is poisoned, sometimes a corrupt hand tips the scales of power, and sometimes a politician simply lies to get into office.
Desire for Change
Still, there have been calls for change repeatedly over the history of our nation. For example, consider this quote from the National Archives: “Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, over 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. The American Bar Association has criticized the Electoral College as ‘archaic’ and ‘ambiguous’ and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favored abolishing it in 1987.” The most common cause for renewed desire for change, at least in recent times, seems to be when the will of the people (the popular vote) stands at odds with the will of the Electoral College. This has only happened a handful of times over nation’s history, but one of those times was just in 2016: with Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton. “Five times a candidate has won the popular vote and lost the election. Andrew Jackson in 1824 (to John Quincy Adams); Samuel Tilden in 1876 (to Rutherford B. Hayes); Grover Cleveland in 1888 (to Benjamin Harrison); Al Gore in 2000 (to George W. Bush); Hillary Clinton in 2016 (to Donald J. Trump).”
And herein we can see ourselves going full circle back to our introduction: the point at which we find our greatest level of interest in the Electoral College is in the aftermath of a Presidential election. Given that Hillary Clinton now stands as one of the five examples in American history of a Presidential candidate winning the popular vote but losing the election itself, an even greater resurgence of interest seems natural. And while a change seems unlikely to loom on the horizon, renewed desires for that very change do appear on the rise – especially within the liberal community.
- Electoral College Fast Facts – History, Art & Archives
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- U.S. Electoral College – National Archives and Records Association
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