Framers' Design for the Electoral College and Today

Time for Reform?

Lesson I. Constitutional Convention and Electoral College

Step 4. Framers' Debates in Convention

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Creating the Electoral College 

The Electoral College is an American innovation designed to address the governing issues of the new nation, specifically balancing the interests of the large and small states.  The debates in the Constitutional Convention about electing the Executive mostly revolved around either Congress choosing the President or relying on a state by state model. 

These are the various options the Framers discussed in Convention for choosing a President: 

  1. President Chosen by a National Legislature (Congress) 
  2. President Chosen by a National Popular Vote
  3. President Chosen by a Group of Electors Independent of Congress 
  4. President Chosen by State Governors 

Here are some highlights of the debates regarding how to elect the President: 

May 29, 1787

On May 29, 1787 in the Constitutional Convention, the delegates from Virginia presented a plan to transform the  Articles of Confederation, which governed the states through the Revolutionary War.  This proposal is now known as the Virginia Plan and it specified the Executive should be chosen by the National Legislature (Congress). In Virginia between 1776 and 1851, the governor was chosen by the legislature, so Virginia’s proposal drew on this model. 

June 1, 1787

  • While debating the idea to  have the National Legislature (Congress) choose the President, James Wilson (Delegate of Pennsylvania) argued to the delegates that it may appear too unrealistic, but he thought “at least in theory he was for an election by the people,” and noted New York and Massachusetts elected governors by a popular vote.”
  • Roger Sherman (Delegate of Connecticut) was for the President’s appointment by Congress, “and for making him absolutely dependent on that body.” Sherman thought if the President was independent of Congress, it was “ the very essence of tyranny.” 

June 2, 1787

On this day, James Wilson first introduced the idea of an Electoral College to replace Congress choosing the President. His proposal introduced an element of popular election, but the intent was to distance the Executive from the National Legislature, not to introduce a greater element of democracy. 

The proposal:

 “…that the States be divided into Districts — and that the persons, qualified to vote in each District, elect Members for their respective Districts to be electors of the Executive Magistracy;

that the electors of the Executive Magistracy meet and they or any of them shall elect by ballot, but not out of their own Body, Person in whom the Executive authority of the national government shall be vested.”

After hearing the idea of an Electoral College, the delegates began discussing again the option of Congress choosing the President. 

July 17, 1787

  •  Gouverneur Morris (Delegate of Pennsylvania) spoke against Congress electing the President, saying this would make the President, “the creature of the Legislature” and argued the President should be elected by the freeholders at large, meaning by popular election. He thought the people would always choose someone of good character and reputation. However, if Congress chose the President, it would be “the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction; it would be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals.”  
  • Roger Sherman (Delegate of Connecticut) thought the mood of the nation would be “better expressed by the Legislature, than by the people at large. The people, he argued, would “never be sufficiently informed of characters” and will “generally vote for some man in their own State.” He further argued, the largest State would always have the best chance at appointing the President. 

July 21, 1787

The delegates agreed to the Electoral College.

July 24, 1787

The delegates switched directions and agreed again for the President to be chosen by the National Legislature (Congress). 

July 25, 1787

Elbridge Gerry (Delegate of Massachusetts) argued the National Legislature choosing the President was “radically and incurably wrong.” He proposed the Executive be appointed by the governors of the states with advice of their councils, but no delegates seconded his proposal.

September 4, 1787

Idea of the Electoral College was introduced again as a means of Separation of Powers. The Electoral College made it possible for the President to be independent of Congress. 

September 17, 1787

The Electoral College made it into the  draft of the U.S. Constitution that would be sent to the states for ratification. 

The delegates ultimately concluded that allowing Congress to choose the President would make the President too reliant on the wishes of Congress. As a result, the delegates created the Electoral College, which allowed for a state by state option and explicitly stated electors could not hold public office at the time of the presidential election. Further, in 1787, the yet-to-be-created federal government did not have the capability to conduct a national election, so the delegates relied on the states to conduct elections  and gave only vague directions. Because the Framers did not specify to the states how to hold presidential elections, each state approached it differently. 

Article II, Section I, Clause 2 of the U.S. The Constitution describes the Electoral College: 

 

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States shall be appointed an Elector.

 

This means: 

 

  1. Each state appoints its own electors
  2. The number of electors is equal to the number of Senators, plus the number of the state’s Representatives in Congress.
  3. No elected official can be an elector 
  4. Once an elector is chosen, the elector can vote for any candidate. 

Electoral College and Slavery 

It’s misplaced to think of the Electoral College as a exploitation of  slavery. This argument is commonly used to support eliminating the Electoral College. Slavery was the original sin of the United States and enslaving individuals based on race is uniquely an American innovation. Over the course of legalized slavery in the United States, American enslavers brutally extracted labor from millions of men, women and children and these injustices still fuel inequalities in the United States today. However, while delegates in the Constitutional Convention debated how to factor in slavery to the balance of power in the Legislative Branch, the delegates did not negotiate the influence of slavery when choosing a President. 

Yet, there is an indirect connection to slavery and the Electoral College because of the ⅗ Compromise. The delegates agreed to an immoral compromise with humanity–allowing enslaved persons who were not permitted to vote to be counted in the proportional representation for the House of Representatives. This is known as the ⅗ Compromise because the delegates agreed to count ⅗ of the enslaved population of a state.  Including enslaved persons in the count for representation meant that the states with more enslaved persons ended up with more representatives in Congress and therefore more power in the federal government. 

The number of electors each state receives in the Electoral College is determined by the number of representatives in the House of Representatives, plus two senators. Because enslaved persons were included in the population count, this meant that states with a higher population of slaves had higher numbers of representatives in Congress. As a result, these slave states also had a higher number of electors in the Electoral College. The fact that several of the early US Presidents were from states with high slave populations was the direct result of the ⅗ Compromise in the Convention, which then affected the composition of the Electoral College. 

Slavery is the great American evil. While the Electoral College was not designed to exploit slavery, it was impacted by it. 

The Electoral College was designed to separate the influence of Congress from the President. 

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Check for Understanding

After watching the video, answer the following questions on your own paper. 

  1. The delegates in the Constitutional Convention mostly debated Congress choosing the President. Why did they change their minds by the end of the Convention and set up the Electoral College? 
  2.  How did the 3/5 Compromise in the Convention impact the Electoral College? 
Lesson I. Step 4 of 7
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