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The US Electoral College and Weeding Out the Chaff

How the Founding Fathers’ original intent regarding the Electoral College over time was turned on its very head.

January 5, 2017

How the Founding Fathers’ original intent regarding the Electoral College over time was turned on its very head.

In 1788, Alexander Hamilton, one of the most eminent and thoughtful founding fathers of the United States, did not envisage the rise of parties, and he certainly never foresaw the emergence of lengthy party primaries.

Hamilton would be shocked

All that he expected was a few states each having a convention to select electors by popular vote, so that these Electors, once assembled from all the states, could vote for the person best suited to serve as the next U.S. President.

For sure, Hamilton never envisaged that the Electoral College would devolve to what it has now become — a mere rubber stamp on a system of voting for President on the basis of a statewide (but not nationwide) popular vote.

In designing the electoral college, Hamilton was strongly influenced by the British Whig leader Edmund Burke’s view.

In Bristol in 1774, Burke stated that:

Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

The subconscious hijacking of the Electoral College

Hamilton’s Electoral College, in other words, was expected to exercise its actual judgement – not just assemble for the mere statistical count — when choosing a President.

The express purpose – now completely forgotten — was to rule out the unqualified.

The transition from a meaningful electoral college, with true “electors” exercising their independent judgement, to the current system where they merely ratify the popular vote in their state, was not explicitly designed by anybody.

Incrementalism and systemic thinking

Rather, it was the result of several political changes that were instituted for their own sake, without considering whether the system was thereby irrevocably changed.

How the Electoral College was rendered impotent

1. From the 1796 and 1800 elections

Still in the very early days of the American Republic, with the emergence of political parties, these competing bodies selected candidates to represent them and electors to vote for the candidates, not to exercise independent judgement (as had been the case in 1788-89 and 1792).

2. From the 1804 to 1828 elections

From 1804, after the Jefferson-Burr stalemate of 1800, Vice Presidential candidates were selected on a “ticket” with the Presidential candidate, and not elected separately. From 1828, almost all state electors were selected by popular vote, for which the candidates competed directly, rather than by state legislatures or other means.

3. From the 1832 election onward

From 1832, candidates were selected by national party nominating conventions, in which delegates played a Burkean role, albeit subject to direction by state party leaders. To an increasing degree from 1912, party convention delegates were selected by primaries.

4. The 1972 “reform”

Since 1972, the primaries have governed the choice of presidential candidate, ending the nature of nominating conventions as well as of the Electoral College.

Back to the roots? Re-empowering the Electoral College

The slide away from an Electoral College in the spirit of the Founding Fathers has thus been progressive and unplanned.

It is thus worth thinking about whether that change could be reversed, and what would be the effect of doing so. Provided the electors were democratically elected, an electoral college system could still be completely democratic.

To make the electoral college a meaningful body, one would have to have direct elections for electors. This would occur either on a congressional district basis, or in groups of no more than say six districts.

Even though the states would remain responsible for each election, one could not have entire states of the size of California voting as a bloc, as voters would have no way of knowing anything about the 55 electors so selected.

The elections for electors would take place as now, on a Tuesday in early November every four years.

British and U.S. Congressional elections operate on a unitary-constituency basis, which tends to lead to majority governments and strong parties, which – at least in these two countries’ traditions — is preferable for a parliament/Congress.

The Electoral College as a coalition-building body

For the Electoral College, the opposite preference would apply. It would be more important to gain representation for all shades of opinion, rather than to ensure a party majority.

Thus, in larger states six-member constituencies with a single transferable vote would ensure maximum proportionality and adequate membership for minority opinion shades such as Greens and libertarians.

With six-member constituencies and transferable voting, there would be little scope for gerrymandering even though the boundaries would be set by the decennial redistricting process used for Congress.

Politically lopsided, heavily populated areas like Manhattan or San Francisco would no longer be unrepresented. They would get to elect several electors of their favorite political color.”

Of course, the major political parties would sponsor candidates. However, even in a heavily one-party area such as New York City, the San Francisco Bay area, or the Dallas/Fort Worth area, one would often find the sixth-placed Democrat or Republican being beaten out by a libertarian or a Green.

A way to reform the system

National legislation would be required to ensure that this system was adopted uniformly and the large states were prevented from voting as a bloc. Congress would have to propose an Electoral College Act, and a sitting President would have to sign it.

Presidential candidates would campaign as now, but there would be little purpose in securing an official party nomination.

After all, candidates who did not receive such a nomination would still be free to campaign among potential electors who were closer to their views.

Ending the two-party chokehold

Under such a system, in 2016 one might have seen electors chosen who were pledged to Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, as well as those pledged to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

There would also have seen a few electors chosen who preferred Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or Ron or Rand Paul – the field would be much more open.

Electors would campaign individually, some pledging themselves to vote for particular candidates, while others simply indicated the types of candidates they favored, without a direct pledge.

In some districts, electoral candidates running would pledge to favor a particular interest – “the farmers’ friend” or “the coal-miners’ friend.”

The campaigns to choose electors would be similar to the biennial elections for the House of Representatives, with a relatively concentrated election period from Labor Day to Election Day. Best of all, it would heavily on local rather than national campaigning.

Back to the future

Once the electors had been chosen, they would meet as a single Electoral College, ideally in Philadelphia where the Constitution was drafted.

There, they would ballot for President, continuing to vote on multiple ballots — until a Presidential candidate received a simple majority of 269 votes.

The Electoral College meeting would operate like a 19th Century party convention, albeit a rather small one with only 538 participants.

Once the President had been selected the electors would disperse and would have no further duties, as now. To maintain the integrity of the voting, it would probably be best to hold the Electoral College meeting in secret, like the College of Cardinals meeting to elect a Pope.

Naturally, deals would be done to secure a majority, but those deals should take place among the Electors, without outside participation.

Since the electors for the Electoral College would campaign individually, with maximum local attention to their individual campaigns, they would not simply be ciphers.

In the Electoral College meeting, they would exercise their individual judgements in the proper manner of true electors.

Thus, the Electoral College system would be returned to its proper Hamiltonian roots, reversing the alterations of the past 200 years.

Avoiding Trump and Clinton

Best of all, with 538 individual electors, each of them a substantial political figure, any possibility of an unqualified President – one who looks the temperamental, character or other qualities required in a President — is greatly diminished.

If such a system had been in operation in 2016, it is likely that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton would have been elected President.

  1. Donald Trump would not meet the approval of these true electors, because of his lack of political experience, even though his populist views might well appeal to many of them.
  2. Conversely, Hillary Clinton was too divisive and uncharismatic a figure to appeal to electors who would be chosen locally, not by centrally organized parties in Washington.

Instead, it is likely that a well-liked figure with some Trumpean populism, some political experience and moderate views would have been selected – a John Kasich or Joe Biden.

Editor’s note: This is adapted from a column that was originally published on the True Blue Will Never Stain blog,


Provided the electors were democratically elected, an Electoral College system could still be democratic.

How did the transition of the Electoral College from a meaningful system to the current system of merely ratifying the popular vote come about?

How can the Electoral College system be returned to its Hamiltonian roots, reversing the alterations of the past 200 years?