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In human society, there are two types of leaders which run governments. One leader is the Prime Minister in the parliamentary system where different parties compete for seats and those that form the government vote for their leader or can compromise on a mutually approved one. You cannot choose the leader but you can chose the people who will chose them for you. In countries which prioritize the presidential system, people have the ability to elect their own leader who will oversee the government, be it centralized or decentralized. One way to do this is to count the votes which people cast and give the presidency to the candidate with the most votes. The United States was one of the early republics before the world largely shifted to democracies and decided not to do this. They do have a President who gets votes, however, electors vote for the president, not you. To explain the electors we need to explain the campaigns.
Candidates for the President of the United States of America campaign for votes across the country in hopes of getting elected. While doing this they can explore different strategies such as touring all the states equally, focusing on swing states or rallying their voter base in specific areas. All while doing this, candidates have to keep in mind the Electoral College; the institution which will actually elect them. Electors are elected in each state for the presidential election and represent the electoral votes distributed to each state based on their population. The votes are the same as the number of Representatives those states are allowed to have in the House of Representatives. This unfortunately means that certain people who vote will no matter as much as the general voting trend of one state or another, thus suppressing the popular vote. If you want to win the election for president, you have to target the largest states and try to win as many as you can. A simple exercise will show you how easily you can win with the smallest number of states.
Winning Just Enough
Together this would make up 270 votes and thus 22% of the states are all you need to win.
In the United States you need 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win the presidency consisting of 50 states (and D.C.) with widely different values in their votes. In 2020, the smallest number of states you need to win is 11 out of 50 (and D.C.). Those states are: California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29), New York (29), Pennsylvania (20), Illinois (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15), and New Jersey (14). Together this would make up 270 votes and thus 22% of the states are all you need to win. The other 78% aren’t needed and a waste of time. In the real world it is much more complicated than that since certain states are loyal to the Republicans or Democrats however, the votes can always change. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won every state except Minnesota (and D.C.) showing just how fast the political landscape can change. Another factor is that electors generally follow the votes which were cast in their states, although they don’t have to. Electors who make their own decisions are called faithless electors and their choices are perfectly legal. In 2016, seven electors were faithless electors and their votes counted even though their choices weren’t going to win. This has come under more scrutiny recently and in 2020 a Supreme Court decision confirmed that states can make laws to require electors to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state. With all of this in mind, why do we have an Electoral College?
Making a Democracy
When the Founding Fathers created the federal government with the United States Constitution their goal was to create a representative democracy. You would elect Congressmen (not Senators) to make your laws, elect or appoint judges to determine how those laws work and cast votes to elect electors to elect electable candidates to be the elected President. Yay elections! The Founding Fathers did not want you to elect the President. That would be a version of direct democracy, which they were not a big fan of. Let’s take a look at the Constitution. In Article 2, Section 1, Clauses 2-4 it is explained how the electors will vote and how the President and Vice President are elected. The state legislatures decided how to appoint electors (via popular election or state appointment), the electors would later meet to vote and the votes would be counted by the President of the Senate. Each elector casts two votes for President and could chose only one candidate from their state. The candidate who won the majority of votes would be declared President and the runner up Vice President. If there wasn’t a majority then the House of Representatives needed to vote and the candidate with the majority won the election. The same conditions apply to the Vice President except the Senate would break a possible tie. In the entirety of this section there is no mention of the people voting for the president. As a side note, there is also no college; the Electoral College is a term that was used decades later.
James Wilson and James Madison wanted a popular election
Originally, there were different plans for selecting the president. The Virginia and New Jersey Plans were going to have the Congress elect the president to a single term. James Wilson and James Madison wanted a popular election for the president however, Madison argued that the Southern states wouldn’t accept a popular election because there were more people in the north but the Electoral College would get rid of this issue since they’d have more voting power. The smaller states would oppose this because they would have less votes too however this was a similar issue to the Representative/Senate problem. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison both talked about the Electoral College in The Federalist Papers arguing that different factions or parties would be unable to corrupt the process since it was across the large country and not a sitting government body. The state legislatures would select the electors in each state and then those electors would pick from amongst the candidates. They would have discretion on who to choose and could consider candidates qualities before picking them. This is a unique invention which gave the states more power over the presidency then a national vote would and further solidified the power of the states against the federal government.
Beyond Two Parties
Over time the electoral system was essentially overruled and transformed into a winner-take-all. Parties realized it was easier to have the electors in each state vote for their candidates over making their own choices and began using their power to change the rules which caused their opponents and allies to follow suite and slowly the entire system became cornered on getting votes from the people in each state and not each district. Originally, electors from each state would pick their own candidates and this resulted in an array of contenders. In the 1788 presidential election, the first one, 12 candidates received electoral votes even though every elector voted for Washington once which ensured he would win. In 1792 five candidates received votes, in 1796 it was 13 and in 1800 it was split between five men. This election was more interesting because Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr actually tied and Jefferson’s opponents tried to get Burr elected in the House but failed. By this point a problem had arisen and was quite apparent.
The Twelfth Amendment
When the electors voted for the candidates it was easy for them to vote for men from different parties who would disagree with each other and try to sabotage the other. This flawed voting system had to be changed and in 1804 the Twelfth Amendment was passed. Even at this point the Founders had made a mistake and the Constitution was already being changed. The new voting rules were one vote for the President and one vote for the Vice President per elector. This way it increased the chance that both men would be from the same party. Before the amendment, each party would need multiple candidates to get the Vice Presidential seat but with that out of the way political parties could focus on sole candidates. In 1804 the candidates finally narrowed to just two and they were backed by specific parties which mirrors modern American elections. Around this time, electors in each state were either being appointed by the states, elected statewide, elected in districts in the states or some combination of these methods. Some of the states would also split because electors could pick different candidates but even from the beginning most electors in the states would vote in one way. Since you could use party unity for voting across the country, parties could overrule individual choices and dictate which candidate would win. It was also the reason that the election in 1824 was such a mess.
James Madison made it clear that when the Constitution was written, the idea of voting based on districts was the main idea.
In 1824 the Democratic-Republicans were the only political party and several candidates emerged amongst the party to become President. The electoral votes became split between four people and no one got a majority, leaving the election up to the House of Representatives. During the campaign season, James Madison wanted to propose an amendment to the Constitution. In Hamilton’s contribution to the Twelfth Amendment of 1804, he called for Congress to proportion states into electoral districts and then decide how the electors will be chosen. This would have changed how the process worked drastically but the Congress part was later dropped. James Madison made it clear that when the Constitution was written, the idea of voting based on districts was the main idea. He additionally wrote that the districts should be able to pick the electors, up to two per district. Madison specifically argued that the intention was for each district of each state to appoint electors who were free to make their own decision, not for a general election by the masses or the legislatures. This was why they choose a representative model for the government; you vote for a person to vote. No amendment ever came to pass and the process of consolidating voting power only continued.
In 1832, four people received electoral votes since new political parties were popping up but by now the Democrats and National Republicans (later Whigs) were getting most of the vote. In 1836 the vote split between five candidates as the Whigs had formed to replace the National Republicans but weren’t organized enough to compete. They resolved to pick multiple candidates to trigger the contingent election in the House of Representatives but failed to achieve this goal. By the 1830’s most states had switched to electing electors with voters statewide as the plan to have electoral districts was gone. In 1840 it went back to just two candidates because the Democratic and Whig Parties had stabilized and after this point, most presidential elections would be dominated by two candidates of the dominant political parties and an occasional challenger from a third party or an independent.
A Better Electoral College
If the Electoral College existed in the way that Hamilton and Madison envisioned then it would work based on partitioning states into districts. The electors would be elected or appointed from each electoral district in the state and arrive at the state capitols. There, they would decide who they wanted to elect and cast their votes. Since this model favors each electoral district it would appeal to people who talk about voters living in rural areas and it would be much fairer. You would have to try to target individual electoral districts and you couldn’t depend on just states or cities alone. Alas, we find all of this in the dreams of a bygone era.
Overall, the Electoral College is not a fair system and has been changed over time to suit the needs of political parties, not the desires of the people. By switching from a representative model to a direct election with a winner-take-all rule (for the majority of states) the voting trends of individual states can be captured by parties to ensure better chances of a victory. The system however is flexible and can even be changed today. A fair system in our modern times would only require a small change and still ensure that people across the country would have a balanced vote. Instead of giving all of the electoral votes in one state to one candidate, you could split the states into electoral districts, abolish the concept of electors and give the vote to the candidate who wins the majority. It is obvious that certain counties in different states always vote for specific parties but their votes are often wasted because the state usually votes for a different party. It would also require that candidates work harder to get everyone’s vote over just getting enough votes across the state. There are plenty of solutions you could propose to improve the voting process but if you only need 22% of the states to vote for you, you’re not going to get votes from all Americans, you’re going to get votes from just enough.
National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript
Supreme Court Decision on Faithless Electors – Chiafalo v. Washington
Supreme Court: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19-465_i425.pdf
The Brookings Institute: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/07/14/supreme-courts-faithless-electors-decision-validates-case-for-the-national-popular-vote-interstate-compact/
The Federalist Papers
Madison: Federalist 68
Avalon Project: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp
Draft of a Resolution for the Legislature of New York for the Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, [29 January 1802]
National Archives: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-25-02-0289
From James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823
National Archives: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-03-02-0109
Fair Vote: https://www.fairvote.org/why-james-madison-wanted-to-change-the-way-we-vote-for-president
Fair Vote: https://www.fairvote.org/how-the-electoral-college-became-winner-take-all
Mount Vernon: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/james-wilson-1742-1798/
National Constitution Center: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/james-wilson-popular-sovereignty-and-the-electoral-college
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