On September 17th, 1787, delegates of the Constitutional Convention ratified the United States Constitution, making it the official framework for the United States Government. Though the term “electoral college” does not appear in the United States Constitution, the term “electors” is used in Article II of the Constitution, as well as within the 12th Amendment. In order to understand why our Founding Fathers made such a decision, you must first look back to see the historical context of the time.
There were a great deal of highly controversial debates that the Framers of our Constitution debated: how should Congress be elected; should the practice of slavery be continued; and, relevant to this topic, how should the President be elected? It’s further important to realize that the Founders were deeply fearful of a powerful chief executive, they did, afterall, just fight a revolution to free themselves from a tyrannical ruler; they wanted to make sure that a monarch would not rise to power in the United States.
Ultimately, the Founding Fathers came upon a compromise: the President would be picked by “electors,” nominated by the States. The benefits of this, to the Founders, were multifaceted. Not only would this safeguard against populism, but it also appealed to the States. Without the approval and consent of the state governments, the Constitution would have never been able to be ratified.
Today, the system of the Electoral College remains, in essence, the same. The number of electors is determined by adding the number of Representatives and Senators that a particular state has, adding up to a total of 538 total electors across all fifty states and the District of Columbia. To win the Presidency, a candidate needs at least 270 Electoral Votes, though there is the possibility of a 269 – 269 tie in which case the election goes to the House of Representatives where each state, regardless of their size or population, gets one vote.
Though numerous attempts have been made to abolish the Electoral College, the most successful was a bipartisan push in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1969, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Senate, by an overwhelming vote of 338 to 70, that, if ratified, would have abolished the Electoral College system. Public support was also at an all-time high during this period, with 80% of Americans believing it should be abolished according to a 1968 Gallup poll.
This push failed when a group of “Dixiecrats” led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, successfully filibustered the attempt. Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, explains this filibuster led by Senator Thurmond as being racially motivated, saying, “[Thurmond and his allies] knew that if Black voters could vote on equal terms with whites, which is what would happen during a popular vote, that advantage would disappear. For them, saving the electoral college was protecting their place in the racial hierarchy that their slaveholding ancestors had created.”
It’s also important to note that, even today, the question of whether or not the Electoral College should be abolished is still debated. There are a sizable amount of individuals who do believe that, though flawed, the Electoral College should not be done away with. Proponents of keeping our current system say that it forces Presidential candidates to assemble a broad-coalition of supporters, and want to give smaller states an “equal vote” in the matter of the selection of our President. Largely, proponents fear that big states and urban areas will dominate elections. These arguments, however, fail to go far enough to justify the continued presence of the Electoral College.
Though the basic principles of the Electoral College remain the same, how it currently functions is in no way what our founders envisioned. The Framers created the Electoral College as a compromise, as a safeguard against the popular vote. As put by John D. Feerick, the framers envisioned “a kind of blue-ribbon commission with members from every state to select the most suitable person to be president.” This system never really came to materialize. When, in the election of 1796, a presidential elector voted against how he was instructed to, one citizen said, “do I choose Samuel Miles [the elector] to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson is the fittest man for president?… No, I choose him to act, not to think.” By the 18th – 19th Century, the Electoral College had already ceased to serve its original function. Arguments against the Electoral College, however, go far deeper than just the fact that the purpose of the Electoral College has shifted or varied over time.
The main argument against the Electoral College is quite straightforward: one person, one vote. The United States prides itself on being one of the longest standing democracies in the world, and yet, we don’t democratically elect one of the most powerful positions in our government. Every vote, no matter who casts it, and no matter where it was cast, should be equal. This has become one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy: equality under law.
Another argument of those who support the Electoral College is that future campaigns will only focus on a select number of states. Though a misguided claim to make, our current system of electors works in this very manner. Candidates only focus on a few key states, or solely in “swing states.” Even further, these electors are, in most cases, not even legally binded to vote for the candidate that won their state. These are only some of the issues with the Electoral College; an even graver one: there is a potential path for the system to be “hijacked.”
Michael Kazin, in an article for The Nation, writes about George Wallace. He says, “for much of 1968, George Wallace, the militant racist from Alabama who ran on a third-party ticket, was riding so high in the polls that it seemed entirely possible he could win enough states to force the House to choose the president… the fear that in a future contest, members of the lower chamber might have to negotiate with Wallace or another rogue independent mobilized support for a constitutional amendment that would replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote…” If the inherent inequality of the Electoral College isn’t enough to dissuade one from supporting it, the ability of the system to be hijacked should be. So, why hasn’t the Electoral College been abolished yet?
Though the most successful push to abolish the Electoral College was in 1969, there have been numerous pushes made, as recently as the 114th and 115th Congress, but none have succeeded. The main roadblock to the abolition of the Electoral College is the difficulty of actually getting a Constitutional Amendment passed. Not only would it require a supermajority in both the House and the Senate, but it also requires ratification by three fourths of all States. With an increasingly polarized United States, the potential for the abolition of the Electoral College may seem out of grasp. Even still, as time goes on, support for abolishing our system of electors grows, with support as high as 61% according to a 2020 Gallup Poll.