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What about the electoral college?

There has been a lot of talk lately about the electoral college. If you read social media, you will see many opinions on why it should or should not continue to choose the American president. Those who want to retain the electoral college tend to focus on the numbers and how several cities have larger populations than some states and if the college is removed, basically a handful of states will choose the next president. One post even claimed that the reason the Founding Fathers instituted the college was to protect the smaller states from the domination of the larger ones. Though I support the electoral college and agree removing it will hurt smaller states and should remain intact, historically speaking, protecting the small states was not a reason for the electoral college. Protecting the government was.

I have stated before in this column that the purpose of the Constitution was to address the two major fears of the Founding Fathers: too strong central government and too much democracy. I have used many quotes over the years, but with “Hamilton” playing in my city recently it seems appropriate to use his words to explain the need for the college; “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”

If you examine the original Constitution, not the amended one today, you will notice that the “people” are only represented in the federal government by members of the House of Representatives. As for the other two elected positions, senators were elected by state legislators and the president was elected by the electoral college. The people had little say in the government, and this was not by accident. The Founders feared a demagogue, a man who had such popular support of the masses that he could turn into an emperor, just as Caesar had done.

To guarantee the masses had no say in choosing the president, they were not asked. There was no primary system to choose who the candidates were. Powerful men, like Hamilton and Jefferson, wrote letters to fellow party members pushing for their man. Then a small group of these men met in a caucus and choose who their party supported.

As for the election, the Constitution states that each state should choose electors. The number comes from the number of congressmen and senators a state has. It does not say how those electors are chosen. For the first several elections the electors were appointed by state legislators. Once chosen, the electors voted for a president by meeting with other electors from their state.

Each wrote down two names, at least one not from their state. These ballots were sent to the Senate for counting. Whoever received the most votes became president and the candidate with the second highest votes became vice president. This would become problematic with men from different parties serving together so it was remedied by the 12th Amendment, where the president and vice president are elected separately.

As you can see, the people had no say in this process and they would not until the 1820s when more democratic ideas began to spread and some states started to choose their electors by a popular vote. When enough states went to this system, the result was Andrew Jackson, the demagogue the founders feared.

The first political convention to pick the president, instead of a caucus, came in the 1830s with the Anti-Masonic Party who ran on stopping government corruption, or “draining the swamp” in modern terms. They saw caucuses as undemocratic and decided to let the people or states choose in an open convention. Shortly after, all parties followed suit, fearing they would look undemocratic to the newly empowered masses.

Today the system is similar, but much more democratic. Primaries choose the candidates long before the conventions. Electors are now chosen by the people in all states and the electors vote for the popular winner of the state. There are state laws requiring both these changes, but it is interesting that no federal law does. If a state chooses to, it can still use the old system.

There is nothing about protecting smaller states from larger ones. The Founders could not have envisioned the population we have in our cities today or that the city populations would ever grow larger than the rural populations. That did not happen until after 1900. They did not know the U.S. would expand across the continent or have such things as low-population fly-over states.

There are many good reasons to keep the electoral college, and those arguments should be made, but make sure you have your history correct if you are going to use the Founders in your reasoning.

Dr. James Finck

Dr. James Finck

Dr. James Finck is an associate professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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