The origins of the Electoral College

Posted by Gabrielle M. on 2/19/21 12:00 PM

Title_ How to Study Efficiently for Hours On End (With the Help of a Tomato)-Feb-02-2021-10-29-29-16-PMToday, we’re taking a step back to examine the history of the Electoral College. Why do we have it, what is the logic behind its design, and what does this mean for our understanding of political representation in the US? 

Why do we have the Electoral College?

Historians, politicians, and political scientists have debated the origins of the Electoral College since its founding. A common explanation for the fact that we don’t directly elect the President is that the Founders didn’t trust average voters to make wise decisions. They instead entrusted that job to electors chosen by each state’s legislature. As numerous commentators have written, the Framers did eschew the possibility of direct election quickly, but that is not to suggest that all framers opposed a national popular vote.

The role of slavery in the Electoral College

Many Framers, including Jefferson, supported a national popular vote...at least in theory. However, Southern delegates to the Pennsylvania Convention had a vested interest in opposing a popular vote; a significant portion of their populations were slaves who were prohibited from voting. These delegates knew that relying on a popular vote would significantly diminish their influence relative to Northern states, which had larger white voting populations.

The solution devised by Southern delegates was to rely on a method of indirect representation that factored in both white and black populations. Each state would be allotted a number of electors who would directly vote for the President, with the number of electors determined according to each state’s representation in Congress. The Framers had already agreed to a method of Congressional representation that relied on the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted five enslaved people equal to three free white people in order to preserve Southern influence in Congress. Thus, when the issue of representation in the Electoral College arose, the Framers drew on rules designed to count slaves toward white Southerners’ political advantage while denying the enslaved any and all democratic rights.

An Anti-Democratic Legacy   

To date, most common narratives around the origins of the EC obscure the impact of slavery on the fundamental design of our nation’s representative institutions. Slaveholders’ concern about protecting their political influence in Congress was fundamental to the design of the EC. It perhaps should not be a surprise that critiques arise every election cycle focused on the clearly anti-democratic rules and consequences of the institution. Even today, though the Three-Fifths Compromise is long abolished, many argue that the rules of the EC continue to disadvantage black and brown voters in urban areas relative to white suburban and rural voters. These dynamics are complicated and require an understanding of the workings of the EC and our current partisan and racial geography. 

Check out my next post where I discuss how to understand the dynamics between race, urbanicity, and democratic representation through the Electoral College.

Gabrielle M. holds a PhD in Government and Social Policy and an MA in Government and Social Policy, both from Harvard University. Her tutoring specialities include History (high school, AP, and college levels), as well as Political Science & Government.

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