There is a lot of discussion today about the Electoral College and the seemingly inefficient nature of our county’s approach to electing its president. After all, the compromises that led to creation of this body are responsible for four of our nation’s worst presidents being put in office without winning the popular vote.
- Donald J. Trump, who lost by 2.9 million votes to Hillary Clinton in the 2016
- George W. Bush, who lost by 543,816 votes to Al Gore in the 2000 election
- Benjamin Harrison, who lost by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland in 1888
- Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost by 264,292 votes to Samuel J. Tilden in 1876
- John Quincy Adams, who lost by 44,804 votes to Andrew Jackson in 1824
Now, its not hard to tell if Clinton, Gore, or Tilden would have been better presidents. Jackson and Cleveland were certainly not great statesmen or military geniuses. So why do we put up with this arcane system?
Well, it’s important to remember that at the time of the Philadelphia convention in 1787, no other country in the world elected its chief executive. Kings were, after all, entitled to their domains by “Divine Right.” The delegates of the Constitutional Convention were proposing the unthinkable, that we would actually choose who lead our country, not by war or invasion but by a representative government. Not since the Roman Republic had anyone even considered the electing the Commander-in-Chief of the army. Further complicating the task was a deep-rooted distrust of executive power. After all, our new nation had just fought its way out from under a tyrannical king and overreaching colonial governors. The delegates did not want trade one despot for another.
The only model that really existed for choosing national leader was the Holy Roman Empire. From the 13th century, the right to elect kings in the Holy Roman Empire was granted to a limited number of imperial princes, the so-called prince-electors. Initially seven electors chose the “King of the Romans” as the Emperor’s designated heir was known. The elected king then went on to be crowned by the Pope. This is a system that evolved from the Roman Senate during reign of the Caesars.
Of course, many of the delegates to our Constitutional Convention felt strongly that Congress shouldn’t have anything to do with picking the president. There was too much opportunity for corruption between the executive and legislative branches. Other delegates were absolutely opposed to letting the people elect the president by a straight popular vote. They thought 18th-century voters lacked the resources to be fully informed about the candidates, especially in rural outposts. Second, they feared a headstrong “democratic mob” steering the country astray. They feared a populist president appealing directly to the people could command dangerous amounts of power and subvert the balance of powers. To get beyond this impasse, a compromise based on the idea of electoral intermediaries. These intermediaries wouldn’t be picked by Congress or elected by the people. Instead, the states would each appoint independent “electors” who would cast the actual ballots for the presidency.
So why does the Electoral College still exist, despite its contentious origins and awkward fit with modern politics? Well the party in power typically benefits from the existence of the Electoral College and the minority party and any third parties have little chance of changing the system because a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds supermajority in Congress plus ratification by three-fourths of the states.
Furthermore, the Electoral College does have some benefits. With the Electoral College, for example, there’s no chance of a run-off election or a protracted national recount. The Electoral College also decouples the dates of the popular vote with the ACTUAL ELECTION of the President so if states need time to fully tabulate and certify their elections, there is not undue pressure make an announcement immediately after the election. Despite what the candidates may say, the ACTUAL ELECTION, by the Electoral College, is December 14 this year. Plenty of time for all those mailed in ballots to be calmly and carefully verified and counted.