Donald Trump carried nine of the ten North Country counties that lie entirely or partly in the Adirondack Park and won 55.4 percent of the region’s votes. All told, 110,730 people in those ten counties voted for Trump. Their votes were counted, of course, but they did not count.
That’s because Hillary Clinton easily won the statewide vote, and in our antiquated system of electing presidents, that means she will be awarded all of the state’s votes in the Electoral College when the state’s electors meet this Monday.
Nationwide, the tables were turned. Clinton won the popular vote by a good margin. As of this week, she led Trump by more than 2.6 million votes. But because Trump won more states, with more Electoral College votes, he is poised to become the second president in this young century to enter the White House after getting fewer votes than his opponent. It’s as if Democratic votes didn’t count in all those Trump states.
Democrats and other anti-Trumpians are outraged. Some are imploring the Electoral College to rebel and pick someone else for president. Others are circulating petitions on Facebook calling for the abolition of the Electoral College.
I am one who thinks the Electoral College should be scotched. I’ve seen arguments in favor of it and find them unconvincing. In a modern democracy, it makes no sense that the loser of the popular vote should win the election.
How did we get to this place? To find out, I recently dug out my copy of James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Madison’s Notes are the best source we have of what went on behind the closed doors of the Constitutional Convention that bequeathed us the Electoral College.
A Chimerical Idea
The starting point for the debates in the convention was the Virginia Plan. On May 29, just a few days after the convention musters a quorum, Edmund Randolph of Virginia proposes a number of resolutions that together formed a framework for a new federal government. It calls for a bicameral legislature (with one branch appointed by state legislatures), an executive, and a judiciary.
We are concerned with Randolph’s seventh resolution, dealing with the national executive. It proposed, in small part, “that a National Executive be instituted; to be chosen by the National Legislature …”
On June 1, the convention delegates take up the seventh resolution. On this day, they barely touch on the method of electing the executive, but James Wilson of Pennsylvania, one of the most learned of the delegates, argues that the executive should be independent and so should not be appointed by the legislature. Madison writes: “Mr. Wilson said he was almost unwilling to declare the mode [of election] which he wished to take place, being apprehensive that it might appear chimerical. He would say however at least that in theory he was for an election by the people.”
The next day, June 2, the delegates consider the election question in earnest. Wilson now proposes that the states be divided into districts, comprising one or more states, and that the people in each district vote for electors who in turn would appoint the “executive magistracy.” Here we have the germ of the Electoral College.
“Mr. Wilson repeated his arguments in favor of an election without the intervention of the States. He supposed too that this mode would produce more confidence among the people in the first magistrate, than an election by the national legislature.”
Madison writes that Hugh Williamson of North Carolina “could see no advantage in the introduction of Electors chosen by the people who would stand in the same relation to them as the State Legislatures, whilst the expedient would be attended with great trouble and expence.”
Wilson’s motion is defeated in an 8-2 vote by the state delegations. Only Pennsylvania and Maryland vote for it. Later in the day, the delegations vote 8-2 to have the national executive elected by the national legislature for a seven-year term. The same two states dissent.
The Idea Reborn
Many delegates continue to harbor doubts about allowing the national legislature to pick the executive. The fear is that candidates will curry favor with the legislature and become beholden to it. Some delegates favor election by the people; those opposed argue that people would be duped into electing an unfit leader or would vote only for candidates from their own states.
On July 19, Rufus King of Massachusetts revives Wilson’s idea from weeks earlier. “On the whole he was of the opinion that an appointment by electors chosen by the people for the purpose, would be liable to the fewest objections.”
William Paterson of New Jersey takes Wilson’s suggestion a step further: “He proposed that the Executive should be appointed by Electors to be chosen by the States in a ratio that would allow one elector to the smallest and three to the largest States.”
Wilson says he is glad to see the idea gaining ground.
James Madison himself then weighs in, arguing that the executive should not be appointed by the legislature. At first, he seems to favor a direct election by the people. “It would be as likely as any [method] that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character.” However, he then raises a difficulty “of a serious nature.” We’ll quote this part in full:
“The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”
The language is somewhat elliptical. I’ll do my best to translate. In general, many delegates thought the relative power of the states should be proportional to their populations. For this reason, the South wanted slaves to be counted in the population. Since slaves could not vote, however, the clout of the southern states would not be proportional to their population if the executive were chosen in a direct election by the people (i.e., those with the right to vote). Yet if the executive were chosen by electors, the relative power of southern states would be preserved as each state would be allotted a number of electors based on its total population.
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut moves that the executive be appointed by electors. The states vote 6-3 in favor. The delegates from Massachusetts are divided. The delegates then vote on whether the electors should be chosen by the state legislatures. This passes 8-2.
At this stage, then, we have an Electoral College whose electors are chosen not by the people, as they are today, but by state legislators. The delegates put off discussion on how many electors should be given to each state.
Back to Square One
Four days later, on July 23, William Houston of New Jersey and Richard Spaight of North Carolina move to reconsider the whole business of electors. “Mr. Houston urged the extreme inconveniency & the considerable expense, of drawing together men from all the States for the single purpose of electing the Chief Magistrate.”
The states vote 7-3 to reconsider. The next day, Houston makes a motion, seconded by Spaight, that the executive be appointed by the national legislature. “He dwelt chiefly on the improbability, that capable men would undertake the service of Electors from the more distant States.”
In a long speech on July 25, Madison analyzes the various options and the demerits of each method of choosing the executive. He opposes election by the national legislature, the state legislatures, or the state executives. “The option before us then lay between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people—and an immediate appointment by the people.”
Madison argues that having electors would reduce the chance of political shenanigans. “As the electors would be chosen for the occasion, would meet at once, & proceed immediately to an appointment, there would be very little opportunity for cabal, or corruption.”
Nevertheless, Madison feels the delegates would not support an appointment by electors. “The remaining mode was an election by the people or rather by the qualified part of them: With all its imperfections he liked this best.”
The next day, George Mason, a fellow Virginian, opposes Madison. “It has been proposed that the election should be made by the people at large; that is that an act which ought to be performed by those who know most of Eminent characters, & qualifications, should be performed by those who know the least.”
Mason moves that the executive be appointed by the national legislature for a term of seven years and not be eligible for reappointment. The states vote 6-3 in favor. Virginia’s delegation is divided. In an unusual step, Madison specifies how his fellow Virginians voted. He and George Washington (revered by all) had voted against it.
The convention adjourns until August 6 to allow a five-member committee (the Committee of Detail) to write the first draft of the constitution.
The Draft Constitution
On August 6, the Committee of Detail delivers its draft of the constitution. Article X deals with the executive branch, and Section 1 of that article spells out how the President will be elected. Section 1 reads in its entirety:
“The Executive Power of the United States shall be vested in a single person. His stile shall be, ‘The President of the United States of America;’ and his title shall be, ‘His Excellency.’ He shall be elected by ballot by the Legislature. He shall hold his office during the term of seven years; but shall not be elected a second time.”
In the ensuing weeks the delegates deliberate over each part of the draft constitution. On August 24, they take up Article X. Some delegates continue to resist an election by the legislature.
Daniel Carroll of Maryland moves to replace “by the Legislature” with “by the people.” The delegations vote 9-2 against it, with Pennsylvania and Delaware in dissent.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania moves that the President “shall be chosen by Electors to be chosen by the People of the several States.” The delegations reject the proposal in a 7-4 vote.
The convention votes separately on the first part of Morris’s motion—namely that the President “shall be chosen by Electors.” This is defeated in a close vote, with the states evenly split.
Further discussion of Section 1 of Article X is postponed.
A Second Revival
On September 4, the so-called Committee of Eleven — with one member from each of the eleven states in attendance — proposes a number of additions and changes to the draft constitution. Among other things, it restores the Electoral College, sparking a robust debate that stretches over several days. The new proposal reads in part:
“Each State shall appoint in such manner as its Legislature may direct, a number of Electors equal to the whole number of Senators and members of the House of Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Legislature. The Electors shall in their respective States, vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same State with themselves.”
Under this scheme, if a candidate wins a majority of the votes, he becomes president. The runner-up becomes vice president. If no one claims a majority, the Senate will choose the President from among the five highest vote-getters.
The plan contains several innovations: (1) it lets the states decide how they will appoint electors, (2) it gives a formula for calculating how many electors each state will have, and (3) it directs that the electors vote in their respective states rather than gather in a national convention.
The proposal seems to catch delegates by surprise. Virginia’s Edmund Randolph and South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney “wished for a particular explanation & discussion for changing the mode of electing the Executive.”
Gouverneur Morris, one of the committee members, offers six reasons for the change (the direct quotes are from Madison’s Notes; my comments are in parentheses):
- “The 1st was the danger of intrigue & faction if the appointment should be made by the Legislature.”
- “The inconveniency of an ineligibility required by that mode in order to lessen its evils.” (If appointed by the legislature, the president would be ineligible for a second term even if he were worthy.)
- “The difficulty of establishing a Court of Impeachments, other than the Senate which would not be so proper for the trial nor the other branch for the impeachment of the President, if appointed by the Legislature.”
- “No body had appeared to be satisfied with an appointment by the Legislature.”
- “Many were anxious even for an immediate choice by the people.” (That is, some delegates favored direct elections by the people.)
- “The indispensible necessity of making the Executive independent of the Legislature.”
Morris goes on: “As the Electors would vote at the same time throughout the U.S. and at so great a distance from each other, the great evil of cabal was avoided. It would be impossible to corrupt them.”
George Mason concedes that the scheme would reduce the chance of corruption. “It was liable however to this strong objection that nineteen times in twenty the President would be chosen by the Senate, an improper body for the purpose.” The implication is that if the Senate were to appoint the president, opportunities for corruption would still arise.
Charles Pinckney offers three more objections:
- “The Electors will be strangers to the several candidates and of course unable to decide on their comparative merits.” (This also was an objection to holding direct elections.)
- “It makes the Executive reeligible which will endanger the public liberty.” (He feared the President would become “fixed for life” in the office.)
- “It makes the same body of men which will in fact elect the President his Judges in case of an impeachment.”
James Wilson, who first suggested an Electoral College back in June, remarks on the divisiveness over the election issue. “It is in truth the most difficult of all on which we have had to decide.”
The delegates debate a number of points over the next few days, but they seem most concerned with the prospect that presidents will be beholden to the senators who appoint them. It adds to fears that the Senate is being given too much power and could evolve into an aristocracy. Under Wilson’s plan, the people would choose the electors. Under the revised plan, Wilson declares, “the President will not be the man of the people as he ought to be, but the Minion of the Senate.”
To deprive the Senate of a role in the election, Mason suggests that whoever gains the most votes from the electors should be president, even if he fails to win a majority of the votes. However, this motion is roundly defeated, 9-2.
It should be noted that the power of the small states is magnified in the Senate, where each state has an equal vote. This was not lost on Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who opposed Mason’s motion. “If the small states had the advantage in the Senate’s deciding among the five highest candidates, the large States would have in fact the nomination of these candidates.” He is referring to the fact that the large states would have more electors in the Electoral College.
On September 6, Hugh Williamson “suggested as better than an eventual choice by the Senate, that this choice should be made by the Legislature, voting by States and not per capita.” The aim is to dilute the role of the Senate.
Sherman then proposes that the choice be made by the House of Representatives, leaving the Senate out of the picture entirely. Mason endorses this idea “as lessening the aristocratic influence of the Senate.” Sherman’s motion passes 10-1, with only Delaware opposing.
Under this scheme, the House votes by state. Thus, the small states retain their outsize influence if the House must decide an election.
The delegates have now created the basic machinery for electing the president that remains in place today, with one change: the Constitution will be amended in 1804 so that the electors cast ballots for both president and vice president.
The Electoral College does not operate as the delegates imagined. Judging from their remarks at the convention, it seems clear that the delegates envisioned it as a deliberative body, which is why they feared cabals and corruption. In fact, the Electoral College acts a rubber-stamp, with each state’s electors merely ratifying the popular vote in their state. The electors serve no purpose.
So what is the rationale for continuing the Electoral College?
The delegates to the 1787 convention believed that the average man in the street or on the farm would not be in a position to judge the character of candidates from distant states. Given the lack of mass media at that time, that was perhaps a reasonable assumption. That’s not a concern today. No doubt there was some class bias at work too. Nowadays, we accept that every eligible citizen has a right to vote.
As Madison pointed out, the Electoral College helped the slave states. In an infamous bargain, the delegates agreed that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of tallying a state’s population. This gave the slave states more clout in the Electoral College than they would have had if presidents were elected by popular vote. In essence, slaves were included in population counts to give slave states more power to perpetuate slavery. This repugnant history is all the more reason to get rid of the Electoral College.
In 1787, states were more or less sovereign realms. Indeed, the failure of the country to act as one nation under the Articles of Confederation led to the Constitutional Convention. At the convention, the smaller states feared they would be “swallowed up” by the larger states and demanded an equal vote in the legislature. In the Great Compromise, the delegates agreed that each state would have an equal vote in the Senate but not in the House of Representatives.
Similarly, some people argue that the Electoral College is also designed to protect small states. However, the small state/big state divide was not a major part of the debate over the Electoral College. In fact, the delegates acknowledged that the big states would hold sway in the appointment of electors who in turn would vote for president. The small states would have an equal vote only if the election were thrown to the House. But this hasn’t happened since the 1800s.
Trump supporters like to point out that the 2016 electoral map shows most of the country colored red (Republican), even though Clinton won the popular vote. By this logic, land mass matters more than population in electing a president. So should we apportion votes in the Electoral College based on a state’s acreage? Under this scenario, Alaska, with a population of 737,000, would have 12 times as many Electoral College votes as New York State, with a population of 19.8 million. Does that sound fair?
Actually, the map oversimplifies political reality. It’s not the case that Democrats live just on the coasts and Republicans just in the heartland. Many Democrats live in red states, just as many Republicans live in blue states. For example, Trump won 4.4 million votes in California — far more than he won in the small western states that account for much of the red swath on the electoral map. If we were to elect a president by popular vote, candidates would campaign throughout the nation, not just in a few swing states. All votes would matter, and all votes would matter equally. To me, that sounds fair. And I think James Wilson would agree.
Howard Chandler Christy’s “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States.” The drawings are of James Wilson and James Madison.