The Electoral College Beats the Alternatives

This Op-ed ran in the The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, November 15, 2000.

As we all vent our anger in the wake of the ongoing electoral imbroglio, the Electoral College has emerged as a favorite target for our frustrations. For only the third time in American history, but for the first time in over a century, the prospective winner of the popular vote has lost the electoral vote. The voice of the people has been filtered through that political squawk box called the Electoral College and yielded an "undemocratic" verdict.

In a very real sense, that is what the founders intended. The framers of the Constitution did not believe in straightforward democracy, which they regard as a crude and shortsighted expression of popular opinion, often at odds with the long-term public interest. They did not want senators, Supreme Court justices or presidents directly elected. They wanted these decisions to pass through succeeding layers of deliberation. The original intent of the framers was to establish not a democracy but a republic, in which popular opinion had to battle its way through artfully contrived chambers of refinement before reaching the promised land of political power.

That said, the Electoral College was one of the Founders’ oddest improvisations. It was essentially a cumbersome compromise forged in August and September of 1787 as the Constitutional Convention was trying to conclude its business. The method of selecting the president was caught up in several crisscrossing debates about the relative power of the federal government and the states, the power of the executive branch versus the Congress, and the sectional division between North and South.

The debate also reflected the two recent but contradictory experiences with executive power: the 1770s, when the grievances against George III rendered any defense of a powerful chief executive fatally monarchical in character; and the 1780s, when the absence of a strong executive presence rendered the government of the Articles of Confederation a recipe for gridlock.

The Electoral College was a messy alternative to selection of the president by the Senate. Hardly a product of divine inspiration, it represented a compromise between nationalists and states righters, Northerners and Southerners, advocates of a strong and weak executive. Most of the framers presumed that the Electoral College would only winnow down the last of presidential candidates, not make the final choice, which would be decided by the House of Representatives.

That is not how the Electoral College has actually functioned over the subsequent two centuries. On only two occasions, in 1800 and 1824, has the selection of the president been thrown into the House. Contrary to the expectations of the framers, the major impact of the Electoral College has been to produce decisive electoral conclusions even when the popular vote is evenly split and, most especially, when third-party candidacies prevent any one person from garnering a popular majority.

On three occasions in the twentieth century–1992, 1968, and 1912–the winner of an electoral majority in the Electoral College did not receive a popular majority. On at least seven occasions in the nineteenth century–the most fateful being Lincoln’s election in 1860–the Electoral College produced a decisive verdict in the absence of a popular majority.

If we do wish to do away with the Electoral College in favor of a popular plebiscite for the presidency, we will also need to revise the Constitution in several other areas as well: making the selection of the president require a mere plurality instead of a firm majority of popular votes; or arranging for an electoral run-off between the two finalists after the general election; or revising the current constitutional provisions for a vote in the House, which requires a one-state, one-vote format, thereby giving Wyoming equal status with California, hardly the democratic result desired.

The prospect of the current Congress managing its way through this political minefield is difficult to imagine. The prospect of a constitutional amendment making its way through two-thirds of the state legislatures is equally difficult to conjure up.

Two venerable propositions come to mind: Don’t mess with the Constitution lightly; and difficult cases make for bad law. The Electoral College, true enough, is a constitutional dinosaur, a weirdly shaped political contraption designed for a pre-democratic age. The trouble is that all the alternative political solutions are likely to generate more trouble. Once again, the founders were wiser than they knew.

 Mr. Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and the author of "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation" (Knopf, 2000).