The Electoral College: Back To School

To many the system by which we choose the President of the United States seems confusing, overly-complex, old-fashioned and even unfair. I will be the first to admit that the current Electoral system is not perfect, but the republican (not the political party) principles behind it are. A simple National Popular Vote compromises those principles and thus I will never support that format. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to an amendment putting new, better ideas into practice. Although, by new ideas, I actually mean reviving “old ideas” posed and supported by the likes of Madison and Jefferson only decades after the Constitution was ratified.

“I am aware that some of these objections might be mitigated, if not removed; but not I suspect in a degree, to render the proposed modification of the Executive Department, an eligible substitute for the one existing. At the same time I am duly sensible of the evils incident to the existing one, and that a solid improvement of it is a desideratum that ought to be welcomed by all enlightened patriots.”
– James Madison to James Hillhouse, 17 May 1830

“On the subject of an election by a general ticket, or by districts, most persons here seem to have made up their minds.  All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general…”
– Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 12 January 1800

What Madison and Jefferson were referring to was the process by which the individual states should choose their electors (aka, their electoral votes). The Constitution was never specific in that regard but instead let the state legislatures decide for themselves. Hence why, for example, Nebraska and Maine can split their electoral votes.

Even though various states have used various modes of electoral appointment over the years, currently (since the end of the Civil War) all states except for NE/ME appoint electoral votes via a statewide, winner-take-all “popular vote” (in 1800 language, “general ticket”).  That’s not the format many of the prominent Founders favored, but it unfortunately became a part of the American system due to political competitiveness. As Jefferson added “while ten States choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly and worse than folly for the other six not to do it,” i.e. everybody’s doing it!

So what Madison, Jefferson and the others suggested was a district system where a state’s Electors (electoral votes) were appointed through the winning of Congressional districts within each state.

“I agree entirely with you in thinking that the election of Presidential Electors by districts… The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted…A constitutional establishment of that mode will doubtless aid in reconciling the smaller States to the other change which they will regard as a concession on their part. The States when voting for President by general tickets or by their Legislatures, are a string of beads; when they make their elections by districts, some of these differing in sentiment from others, and sympathizing with that of districts in other States, they are so knit together as to break the force of those geographical and other noxious parties which might render the repulsive too strong for the cohesive tendencies within the Political System.”
– James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

In another letter, Madison again warns of some of the problems with “general tickets” (popular vote):

“If the election be referred immediately to the people, however, they may be liable to an excess of excitement on particular occasions. They will on ordinary occasions and where the Candidates are least known feel too little; yielding too much to the consideration, that in a question depending on Millions of votes, individual ones, are not worth the trouble of giving them. There would be great encouragement therefore for active partizans to push up their favorites to the Upper places on the list, and by that means force a choice between candidates, to either of whom, others lower on the list, would be preferred. Experience gives sufficient warning of such results.”
– James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

Hence, why he favored the district model:

“An election by Districts, instead of general tickets, & State Legislatures, and an avoidance of a decision by the House of Representatives voting by States, would certainly be changes much for the better…”
– James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

While many of the formally educated and armchair political scientists who presently advocate changing the electoral system would like to consider themselves modern geniuses, at least two of the most intelligent Founding Founders saw room for improvement to the system centuries ago. Not only did they quickly identify the previously unforeseen problem caused by a combination of democracy, factious competition and exploitation, but they just as quickly provided quite the fair and logical remedy. Following the advice of these two Founders would help perfect the electoral system, and thus further protect and promote the republican principles enshrined in the Constitution.


For more reading:

James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

James Madison to James Hillhouse, 17 May 1830

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 12 January 1800

Wallbuilders Article on the Electoral College

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