World News – US – Who Invented the Electoral College?


Phillip J VanFossen – JF Ackerman Professor of Education in Social Studies; Director, Ackerman Center; Associate Director, Purdue Center for Economic Education, Purdue University
04 November 2020

Delegates in Philadelphia agreed in the summer of 1787 that the new country they were creating would not have a king but rather an elected executive. But they disagreed on how to choose this president

Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson called the problem of choosing a president « indeed, one of the most difficult of all we have to decide. » Other delegates, when they recounted later group efforts, stated that « this very subject has embarrassed them more than any other – that various systems have been proposed, discussed and rejected »

They risked concluding their meetings without finding a way to choose a leader In fact, it was the very last thing written in the final draft If no agreement had been reached, the delegates would not have approved the Constitution

I have been a civic educator who has also facilitated the Purdue University Constitution Day celebration for 15 years, and one lesson I always come back to is the degree to which the founders had to compromise to ensure the ratification The selection of the president was one of those compromises

Three approaches were debated at the Constitutional Convention: election by Congress, selection by state legislatures, and popular election – although the right to vote is generally limited to white male landowners

Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed that letting Congress choose the president would provide a buffer against what Thomas Jefferson called « well-meaning, but ill-informed people » who, in a country the size of the United States, « could not have any knowledge of the prominent characters and qualifications and the actual selection decision »

Others feared this approach could threaten the separation of powers created in the first three articles of the Constitution: Congress could choose a weak executive to prevent the president from exercising his veto, thus reducing efficiency of one of the checks and balances of the system In addition, the president could feel indebted to Congress and cede some power to the legislature

Virginia delegate James Madison feared that giving Congress the power to choose the president « would make him the executor as well as the legislator; and so tyrannical laws could be passed to be enforced tyrannically »

This view persuaded fellow Virginian George Mason to reverse his previous support for the election of president by Congress and then conclude that he saw « making the executive the mere creature of the assembly legislative as a violation of the fundamental principle of good government « 

Some delegates felt that directly involving states in choosing the head of national government was a good approach for the new federal system

But others, including Alexander Hamilton, were concerned that states would choose a weak executive to increase their own power Hamilton also observed that lawmakers are often slower to act than one would expect from key leaders: « In the legislature, the promptness of the decision is more often an evil than an advantage »

It may not be as concise as the musical, but the point is clear: don’t trust state legislatures

The last approach discussed was popular elections Some delegates, like New York delegate Governor Morris, saw the president as the « guardian of the people », whom the public should elect directly

Southern states opposed, arguing that they would be at a disadvantage in a popular election in proportion to their actual population because of the large number of enslaved people in those states who could not vote This was ultimately resolved – in one of many compromises – by counting each enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person for the purposes of representation.

George Mason, a delegate from Virginia, shared Jefferson’s skepticism of ordinary Americans, saying it would be « unnatural to turn the choice of a suitable figure for the chief magistrate back to the people, as he would, to send a color case back to a blind man. The size of the country makes it impossible for the people to have the capacity required to judge the respective claims of the Candidates « 

The delegates appointed a committee of 11 members – one from each State with the Constitutional Convention – to solve this and other thorny problem, which they called the « Grand Committee on Deferred Matters », and charged with resolve « outstanding issues, including how to elect the president »

At first, six of the 11 members preferred the popular national elections But they realized that they could not get the Constitution ratified with this provision: the southern states simply would not accept it

Between Aug 31 and Sep 4, 1787, the committee struggled to produce an acceptable compromise.The committee’s third report to the Convention proposed the adoption of a system of voters, through which the people and states would help to choose the president It is not known which delegate had the idea, which was a solution partly national and partly federal, and which reflected other structures of the Constitution

Hamilton and the other founders were reassured that with this system of compromise, neither public ignorance nor outside influence would affect the choice of a nation’s leader.They believed voters would ensure that only a qualified person becomes president And they believed that the Electoral College would serve as a control to an audience that could easily be misled, especially by foreign governments

But the original system – in which the winner of the Electoral College would become president and the finalist would become vice-president – collapsed almost immediately.In the elections of 1800, political parties had arisen because electoral votes for the president and vice president were not on separate ballots, Democratic-Republican roommates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied in the Electoral College, sending the contest to the House of Representatives The House ultimately chose Jefferson as its third speaker, leaving Burr as its vice-president – not John Adams, who led the opposing federalist party ticket

The problem was solved in 1804 when the 12th Amendment was ratified, allowing voters to vote separately for President and Vice President. It has been so since

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Electoral College, Donald Trump, United States Presidential Election, 2020

News from around the world – United States – Who invented the Electoral College?


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