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Electoral College History

A 2015 Gallup poll determined that about 43% of eligible voters didn't vote because they believed that their vote wouldn't matter, especially in a presidential campaign. These otherwise eligible voters were less likely to vote because they felt disenfranchised (i.e., deprived of a right or privilege, like that of voting), not because they were physically prevented from casting a vote, but because none of the candidates for the office spoke to the issues or concerns that mattered to them.

Now I don't want to get off on a rant here but to be fair, I complain … a LOT … about how the Old Parties have consistently "gamed the system" by altering certain specific ideas in an attempt to eke out even the smallest advantage against their mirror. But if I seem petty and bitter about it, well, it's because I am.

"Imagine a time when it all began…"

When the Framers were drafting and debating the Constitution, the question of how to select the president lined up around three main ideas: direct democracy (or a popular vote), election by Congress (or a parliamentary system), or an election by state-based electors (an "electoral college"). Let's look at each:

"To build the best 'big stick', to turn the winning trick, but this was something more."

Direct Democracy, or Popular Vote.

In a direct democracy, or popular vote, whoever gets the most votes wins. That idea was appealing to many of the Framers because it was already being used to elect governors in states like Massachusetts and New York. But it was unclear how that method could be used to identify qualified candidates at a national level. Also, for the Framers from Southern states, a direct democracy vote would mean that executive power would be controlled by the Northern states because they had a larger voting bloc. At that time, nearly 40% of the people living in the South were enslaved Black people who were not allowed to vote. In short, the North wanted it, but the South didn't.

Election by Congress, or Parliamentary System.

For the Southern states at the time, having Congress choose the president would solve both of their main concerns with a direct democracy vote. They figured that Congressional representatives, "the country's political elite", would have no problem identifying qualified national political figures, and the already addressed (at the time) "three-fifths compromise" that gave 60% of the enslaved population representation in Congress also gave the Southern states more political clout. A presidential election by Congress, however, would infringe on the Framers' desire for a separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislative Branches opening up the possibility that the president would simply become a Congressional puppet.

State-based Electors, or "Electoral College".

The compromise eventually came up to be a system of state-based electors based roughly on each state's population. For the Framers, it resolved the issue of leaving too much power in the hands of a possibly ill-informed public, addressed the possibility of Northern dominance of the Executive Branch, and that of breaching the separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative Branches.

"Big shots try to hold it back. Fools try to wish it away. The hopeful depend on a world without end whatever the hopeless may say."

Advocates of the Electoral College celebrate its check on the power that large cities would have in a purely popular vote election. Critics note that states with smaller populations have disproportionally more influence under the current system, and that the current "winner-take-all" rules mean that only a handful of battleground states have an outsized influence on determining the winner leading to presidential candidates devoting much more of their campaigning to just a few states.

"Whoever found it first would be sure to do their worst; they always had before…"

The Constitution specifies that each state gets the same number of electors as its total number of Representatives and Senators in Congress, but it left it up to the states to determine how they would choose their electors. Currently, all but two states - Maine and Nebraska - have adopted a "winner-take-all" system that awards all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state's popular vote. This came about in the 1820s when political leaders in one state wanted to maximize their support for their preferred candidate, and once one state started doing it, other states felt that they also had to do it just too avoid hurting their own preferred candidate.

Despite what you may have been told in your history classes, it was not done for idealistic reasons. It was entirely a product of partisan pragmatism. After all, if you're a Democrat in a mostly Democratic state, like New York, why would you want to give any possible advantage to a Republican candidate if you can possibly avoid it altogether? Even James Madison, one of the Constitution's primary authors, stated in an 1823 letter to George Hay, that few of the constitutional framers anticipated electors being chosen based on winner-take-all rules.

"All the powers that be, and the course of history would be changed forevermore."

The sole purpose of the Electoral College is to elect the head of the Executive Branch. There is no other reason for its existence, and it has no other effect in any other area of government. The intent of the Framers was that the "will of the people" would be represented by the Legislative Branch and that the Executive Branch would be directly responsible to the collective states. But our culture has, more and more over the decades (and especially in recent years), turned everything into a popularity contest, with the race for president to be the penultimate popularity challenge.  And that's unfortunate for "We, the People" because while everyone in America understand "popularity", many of us forget that the most popular person is seldom the best qualified person to lead from a position of responsibility.

Committee to Elect Darren Hamilton
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