The origins of the Electoral College

AP exams history political science

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 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.

Contact us!

Check out related blog posts below!

Wait, what is the electoral college again??

A Beginner’s Guide to Analyzing Historical Documents

SAT & AP Tutoring Approaches with Eric


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT college admissions expository writing English strategy MD/PhD admissions writing LSAT GMAT physics GRE chemistry biology math graduate admissions academic advice law school admissions ACT interview prep language learning test anxiety career advice premed MBA admissions personal statements homework help AP exams creative writing MD test prep study schedules computer science Common Application mathematics summer activities history philosophy secondary applications organic chemistry economics supplements research grammar 1L PSAT admissions coaching law psychology statistics & probability dental admissions legal studies ESL CARS PhD admissions SSAT covid-19 logic games reading comprehension calculus engineering USMLE mentorship Spanish parents Latin biochemistry case coaching verbal reasoning AMCAS DAT English literature STEM admissions advice excel medical school political science skills French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity astrophysics chinese gap year genetics letters of recommendation mechanical engineering Anki DO Social Advocacy algebra art history artificial intelligence business careers cell biology classics data science dental school diversity statement geometry kinematics linear algebra mental health presentations quantitative reasoning study abroad tech industry technical interviews time management work and activities 2L DMD IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs Sentence Correction adjusting to college algorithms amino acids analysis essay athletics business skills cold emails finance first generation student functions graphing information sessions international students internships logic networking poetry proofs resume revising science social sciences software engineering trigonometry units writer's block 3L AAMC Academic Interest EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian JD/MBA admissions Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Shakespeare Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Truss Analysis Zoom acids and bases active learning architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios bacteriology bibliographies biomedicine brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets central limit theorem centrifugal force chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dimensional analysis distance learning econometrics electric engineering electricity and magnetism escape velocity evolution executive function fellowships freewriting genomics harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law immunology induction infinite institutional actions integrated reasoning intermolecular forces intern investing investment banking lab reports letter of continued interest linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis mnemonics music music theory nervous system