Framers' Design for the Electoral College and Today

Time for Reform?

Lesson II. Historical Development of Electoral College

Step 1. Electoral College Today


Watch this video to learn how the Electoral College works over time in the United States. Political parties and the winner-takes-all rules of elections are not in the Constitution, but strongly influence how the Electoral College operates today. 



Political Parties in U.S.  


Political parties are not in the U.S. Constitution. They first formed in the U.S. during George Washington’s second term as President. Washington warned in his 1796 Farewell Address that political parties would divide and destroy the country. Despite his counsel, two factions emerged and dominated American politics. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton led the Federalists, which favored business development, a strong national government, and a loose interpretation of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson led the Democratic Republicans, which called for a society based on small farms, a relatively weak central government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Today, Democrats and Republicans dominate U.S. politics. These parties formed at the time of the American Civil War, shifted during the Great Depression under the New Deal and reconfigured during the prosperity of the 1980s. 


Political parties today mostly exist to facilitate collective action and win elections. Two  parties dominate American politics because of these U.S. election rules:


  1. One winner per district
  2. Winner-takes-all 


Political parties are vehicles for organizing interests.While the U.S.uses the two party system, many democracies in the world have proportional representation, meaning officials are elected based on the percentage of votes their parties receive. For example, if a legislative body has 100 seats, a party will receive 10 seats for winning 10% of the vote. In a multiparty system, parties may form a coalition, an alliance between parties, to pool their votes if there is agreement on a major issue. Proportional representation encourages the formation of parties that are based on narrowly defined interests. The two party-system in the U.S. fosters the formation of “big-tent” parties, building support across a wide range of voters. These big tent parties are not beholden to one political group. 


Winner-Takes-All and the Electoral College 


When talking about the Electoral College, winner-takes-all means that the party of the candidate who won the popular vote in the state gets all the electors for that state. Every state uses a winner-takes-all system, except for Nebraska and Maine, which choose electors by proportions of the votes. The winner-takes-all system makes it possible for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote and still lose the Electoral College, which happened in the presidential elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. 


 The winner-takes-all component of the Electoral College developed later in American history. It is not designated in the Constitution. 


How did this winner-take-all system develop?


In 1787, the newly proposed federal government did not have the capability to conduct a national election, so the Framers in the Constitutional Convention relied on the states to run elections and gave only vague direction for their constitutional responsibility. Because the Framers did not specify to the states how to hold presidential elections, each state approached it differently. Additionally, political parties began developing only after the creation of the Constitution. 


States used the flexibility allowed by this system in different ways. In the 1796 election, the legislatures of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Vermont simply appointed electors to vote for the president. The remaining states ran elections to choose electors, running either state-wide elections by district, or more complicated procedures, like Tennessee. 


Until 1832, the states conducted presidential elections in three main ways:


  1. The political party that won the popular vote chose all the state’s electors
  2. Political parties gained electors as they won designated districts 
  3. The state legislature chose the electors


The winner-takes-all system developed because the vote expanded to more Americans and it made it easier to manage elections. More citizens could vote because states began dropping the property requirement to vote, though suffrage was still limited to only white males. The winner-takes-all approach for choosing electors solved a few problems: 


  1. It allowed for efficiency and consistency across states
  2. When electors were chosen by district, it often split the vote
  3. By the 1830s, Americans preferred a popular vote to state legislatures choosing the President 


This winner-takes-all system solved some problems. However, it made it so a presidential candidate could lose the popular vote, but win the Electoral College, which happened in the elections of these presidents: 

John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876,  Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 


Today, especially after the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016, more people are calling for eliminating the Electoral College. Yet, there are some advantages to keeping it. Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, which is extremely difficult to accomplish. However, the winner-takes-all component of the Electoral College is not in the Constitution and could be changed without a constitutional amendment. 


President Elected by National Vote?


In present day, the American preference for a popular vote has expanded even more than in the 1830s. Some reformers want to abolish the Electoral College, making the presidential election a strictly national vote. This change would empower a presidential candidate to capture more votes in fewer states for a victory. It would also disproportionately benefit the Democratic Party because members of this party more often reside in highly populated cities. For this reason, it is unlikely to gain enough of a consensus to change the Constitution. 


However, Nebraska and Maine currently do not practice the winner-takes-all system and may provide a model for reform that would not require a constitutional amendment. In these states two votes go to the statewide winner and the remaining electors’ votes are allocated to the winner of each individual congressional district in the state. This change does not inherently provide an advantage to one political party. 

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