The US Electoral College: Part 1, Alex H

The United States elects its Presidents in a very odd indirect way. Each state chooses some electors, and those electors then vote for the President and Vice President. Those electors were originally chosen by state legislatures, but with the rise of political parties, they soon became chosen by whichever party wins each state’s popular vote, the vote of ordinary voters. Electors normally vote for whichever candidates that their party has nominated, with exceptions being “faithless electors”.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to the sizes of its House and Senate delegations. Most states use “winner take all”, but Maine and Nebraska use one elector per House district and two electors for the whole state.

The name “Electoral College” seems odd by present-day standards, but that is because “college” is used in an earlier meaning of “assembly” as opposed to the present meaning of “institution of higher education”. So for present-day people, it ought to be renamed “Electoral Assembly”.

How did it come into existence?

I first must note that indirect election is fairly common in representative democracies (Electoral college – Wikipedia). But in nearly all cases, the electors are themselves elected officials, some legislature or some local or regional officials. The US Electoral College has seldom been imitated, if it ever has been, and every US state governor is directly elected, elected by popular vote.

The creators of the US Constitution tended to distrust ordinary people, so they made only the House of Representatives directly elected. The Senate was indirectly elected, each state’s Senators being elected by that state’s legislature. That was changed to direct election in 1913, by the Seventeenth Amendment.

The Constitution’s creators had various opinions on how to elect the President, considering such options as election by state governors and election by Congress before they settled on the Electoral College. Though they burned their notes, some of them advocated their creation more broadly in documents now known as the Federalist Papers.

In particular, Federalist Paper #68 (The Avalon Project) contains Alexander Hamilton’s advocacy of the Electoral College. He described it as a sort of search committee that would be composed of people with broad knowledge and a good idea of what makes someone a good president. They would vote in their states instead of together in order to resist demagogues and foreign meddling.

But with the rise of political parties, the EC soon became a rubber-stamp body, and with the election of President Trump, its failure became complete. Trump is a demagogue who got elected with the help of Russian hackers and troll farms — foreign meddling.

In my second part, I will discuss efforts to abolish the EC or work around it.

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