“It’s got to go,” asserted Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, when speaking of the electoral college in 2019 – reflecting a growing opposition to the constitutional process, which has been only heightened by the chaotic events of the past weeks. Rather than simply reiterating the same, prosaic arguments for the institution’s removal – the potential subversion the popular vote, the overwhelming significance of battleground states, the futility of voting for a third party, and so forth – this piece will consider the historical mentalities with which the electoral college was created in an effort to convey the ludicrous obsolescence of the institution in a twenty-first century democracy.
In its essence, the system of electors stems from the patrician belief that the population lacked the intellectual capacity necessary for participation in a popular vote – Elbridge Gerry informing the Constitutional Convention, “the people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.” Over the past two hundred years, the United States has moved away from the early modern principles encouraging indirect systems of voting: for instance, the fourteenth amendment normalised the direct election of senators in 1913. It has also seen the electors themselves transition from the noble statesmen of the Framers’ vision, to the staunch party loyalists that they so greatly feared. In fact, the very institutions of modern political parties had no place in the Framers’ original conception, with Alexander Hamilton articulating a customary opposition to the, “tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.” This optimistic visualisation of a factionless union soon proved incompatible with the realities of electioneering and required the introduction of the twelfth amendment in 1803, a response to the factious elections of 1796 and 1800. Yet, while early pragmatism was exercised over the issue of the presidential ticket, the electoral college remains entirely unreformed at a time when two behemothic parties spend billions of dollars to manipulate its outcome in each presidential election cycle.
The Constitutional Convention was, in part, characterised by a need for compromise and it is these compromises, rooted in the specific political concerns of 1787, that continue to shape the system for electing the nation’s president. With the struggle between the smaller and larger states causing, in the words of James Madison, “more embarrassment, and a greater alarm for the issue of the Convention than all the rest put together,” the electoral college presented a means of placating the smaller states by increasing their proportional influence in presidential elections. While it may have been necessary to appease the smaller states in 1787, the since unmodified system still ensures voters in states with smaller populations and lower turnout rates, such as Oklahoma, hold greater electoral influence than those in states with larger populations and higher rates of turnout, such as Florida. Yet, it was the need for compromise over a more contentious issue – the future of American slavery – that compelled the introduction of the electoral college further still. Madison recognised that “suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States” and that “the substitution of electors obviated this difficulty.” The indirect system of election, combined with a clause that counted three of every five slaves towards the state population, thus granted the slaveholding section of the new republic much greater representation in the election of the president than an alternative, popular vote would have permitted. At a time when the United States’ relationship with its slaveholding past has become the subject of sustained revaluation, its means of electing the executive remains steeped in the legacy of American slavery.
It takes only a brief examination, such as this, to reveal the stark contrasts between the historical mentalities with which the electoral college was established and the realities of a modern, democratic state. Further attempts to reform the institution will no doubt continue to come and go, as they have over the past two hundred years. However, when compared with the environment in which it was proposed, it is clear that the unreformed electoral college is no longer fit for purpose and must, eventually, give way to a system in which the president is elected by a popular vote.