Historian Ray Raphael on that Flummoxing Electoral College
Twelve years ago at this time Vice President Al Gore ran against governor of Texas George W. Bush, leading to chaotic election results. The votes were so close that one candidate won the popular vote while another won the electoral vote. That was right about the time that people across America began asking, what is the Electoral College, and how can a candidate win the popular vote and still lose the election? Who would create such a system? Many are still asking these questions as we approach another close presidential election in November, and historian Ray Raphael has the answers.
Raphael is currently a Senior Research Fellow with Humboldt State University in Northern California. He authored the acclaimed People’s History of the American Revolution as well as many other books on the founding of the United States, and his latest book is Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive. Raphael visited the Society on Monday, September 24, to present “The Curious Creation of the Electoral College: What the Founders Didn't Want and Didn't See Coming.”
“Welcome, fans of the Electoral College,” Raphael began, to the laughter of the audience. He went on to explain the roots of the electoral system in the Federal Convention of 1787 and the ways in which even the founders viewed it as an imperfect solution. The Virginia Plan, an outline of government proposed by the Virginia delegates, called for an undetermined number of members of an executive branch chosen by the legislature. James Wilson of Virginia, however, proposed a single executive elected by the people. Although the members of the convention agreed upon the idea of a single executive, with very limited powers, they disliked the idea of a popular vote to decide the election. Wilson outlined an electoral system as an alternative, but it was rejected. The feeling of the convention was that Congress should be involved in selecting the president. Why the opposition to a popular vote?
“They wanted government by the people,” Raphael said, “but not the people ruling on a daily basis.”
Finally, the question of how to elect the executive was referred to a committee, which became known as the “Grand Committee.” They created the electoral system we know today, which does not involve Congress directly in presidential elections. The committee also gave the president powers of treaty and appointment. The electoral system and the greater powers allocated to the president were contrary to the sentiments of the convention as a whole, but nonetheless the electoral system was ratified as part of a final effort to complete the Constitution. As a result, electors representing each state, which are equal in number to its Congressional representation, elect the president. Although Maine and Nebraska count their electoral votes proportionally, the rest have a winner-take-all system. In winner-take-all states all the electoral votes go to the candidate who had the most votes in that state, which in four cases has resulted in a candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote, as we saw in 2000—and which came very close to happening again in 2004.
The committee designed the Electoral College to avoid corruption. They believed that if the electors, who were chosen by the state legislatures, voted at a distance they would be less likely to succumb to the dangers of intrigue and faction. The founders expected the electors to behave nobly and do what was best for the nation. But it only took eight years for national political parties to take hold, resulting in electors having no discretion in voting. Their votes were pre-committed to their parties.
“It’s Oedipal,” said Raphael. “In trying to escape your fate, you create it.”
The Electoral College has evolved considerably from the original intent of the founders, which was to protect the election of the executive from corruption. But even after the collapse of the election process in 2000, Raphael believes it is unlikely to be changed by a constitutional amendment. Voters in rural states, with small populations, and voters in swing states are courted because their votes have added electoral weight, so they prefer this electoral system.
“Isn’t it amazing?” asks Raphael. “Humans are stuck with their own contrivances for centuries.”
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