Power  /  Comment

The Electoral Punt

It can be hard to know what the Founders intended when they didn't know, either.

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US Election Night 1980 NBC live coverage 11-4-1980.

Memoryretro, YouTube

By now, most American voters have probably realized that we technically do not choose our presidents. Instead, we vote for members of an “electoral college,” who choose on our behalf. Because of this, candidates can win the presidency even when most voters reject them.

In recent years, this system has been controversial.

Some Americans defend the electoral college because they believe it was designed to give rural areas and small states a voice. Others claim the electoral college was designed to limit democracy, allowing an elite to choose the president. Others argue the electoral college was designed to protect slavery, and is therefore illegitimate.1

The truth is, the electoral college has never worked as intended by its creators. This is partly because they did not make clear what their intention was.

For several humid summer months in 1787, the Constitutional Convention could not agree on a good way to choose a president. James Madison’s notes show they debated the issue off and on from June to September, going in circles until, near the convention’s end, they came up with a way to leave the problem half-solved.2

Crucially, they did not decide whether to hold popular elections. In fact, the Constitution still does not guarantee us a right to vote for the president. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution merely says the electoral college’s members are chosen in each state “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.”

Thus, when George Washington was chosen as president in 1789, only six states held a popular vote, while elsewhere state legislators picked their electoral college members.3 It took decades to establish a firm nationwide custom of allowing ordinary citizens to vote in presidential elections.