Who Invented the Electoral College?

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Who invented the electoral college? The short answer is the founding fathers (aka the framers of the Constitution.) But if credit is to be given to one person, it’s often attributed to James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who proposed the idea prior to the committee of eleven making the recommendation. 

However, the framework they put into place for the election of the nation’s president is not only oddly undemocratic, but also opens the door to some quirky scenarios, such as a candidate who wins the presidency without having captured the most votes.

So how exactly does the electoral college work? And what was the founder’s reasoning behind creating it?

Electors, Not Voters, Pick Presidents

Every four years, American citizens head to the polls to cast their vote for who they want to be President and Vice President of the United States. But they’re not voting to elect candidates directly and not every vote counts in the final tally. Instead, the votes go toward choosing electors that are part of a group called the electoral college.

The number of electors in each state is proportionate to how many members of congress represent the state. For example, California has 53 representatives in the United States House of Representatives and two senators, so California has 55 electors. In total, there are 538 electors, which include three electors from the District of Columbia. It’s the electors whose vote will determine the next president.

Each state establishes how their respective electors will be chosen. But generally, each party puts up a list of electors that have pledged to support the party’s chosen nominees. In some instances, the electors are legally obliged to vote for their party’s candidate. The electors are picked by the citizens through a contest called the popular vote.

But for practical purposes, voters stepping into the booth shall be given a choice to cast their ballots for one of the party nominees or write in their own candidate. Voters won't know who the electors are and it wouldn’t matter either way. Forty-eight of the states award the entire slate of electors to the winner of the popular vote while the other two, Maine and Nebraska, divvy up their electors more proportionally with the loser potentially still receiving electors.

In the final tally, the candidates who receive the majority of the electors (270) will have been chosen as the next President and Vice President of the United States. In the case in which no candidates receive at least 270 electors, the decision goes to the U.S. House of representatives where a vote is held between the top three presidential candidates who received the most electors.  

The Pitfalls of a Popular Vote Election

Now wouldn’t it simply be easier (not to mention more democratic) to go with a straightforward popular vote? Sure. But the founding fathers were fairly apprehensive about strictly letting the people make such an important decision regarding their government. For one, they saw the potential for a tyranny of the majority, wherein 51 percent of the population elected an official that 49 percent wouldn’t accept.

Also keep in mind that at the time of the constitution we didn’t have a primarily two-party system the way we do now and so it can easily be assumed that citizens would likely just vote for their favored candidate of their state, hence giving entirely too much leverage to candidates from bigger states. James Madison of Virginia was particularly concerned that holding a popular vote would disadvantage southern states, which were less populated than those in the north.  

At the convention, there were delegates were so dead set against the dangers of directly electing a president that they proposed having congress vote on it. Some even floated the idea of letting state governors vote to decide which candidates would be in charge of the executive branch. In the end, the electoral college was set up as a compromise between those who disagreed on whether the people or congress should elect the next president.

A Far From Perfect Solution

The somewhat convoluted nature of the electoral college can make for some tricky situations. The most notable, of course, is the possibility of a candidate losing the popular vote, but winning the election. This happened most recently in the 2016 election, when Donald Trump was elected president over Hillary Clinton, despite being bested by nearly three million votes — Clinton won 2.1% more of the popular vote.

There are also a host of other very unlikely, yet still possible complications. For example, should the election end in a tie or if none of the candidates were able to garner a majority of electors, the vote gets tossed to congress, where each state gets one vote. The winner would need a majority (26 states) to assume the presidency. But should the race remain deadlocked, the senate selects a vice president to take over as acting president until the deadlock is somehow resolved.

Want another one? How about the fact that in some instances electors aren’t required to vote for state winner and can defy the will of the people, a problem known colloquially as the “faithless elector.” It happened in 2000 when a Washington DC elector didn’t cast a vote in protest of the district's lack of congressional representation and also in 2004 when an elector from West Virginia pledged ahead of time to not vote for George W. Bush.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that while the electoral college is considered by many to be inherently unfair and can thus lead to a number of unsatisfying scenarios, it’s unlikely that politicians will be able to do away with the system anytime soon. Doing so would most likely require amending the constitution to do away or to alter the twelfth amendment.

Of course, there are other ways to get around the flaws, such as one proposal to have in which states can all collectively pass laws to hand all electors to the winner of the popular vote. While it's far-fetched, crazier things have happened before.     

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Nguyen, Tuan C. "Who Invented the Electoral College?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-electoral-college-4108154. Nguyen, Tuan C. (2020, October 29). Who Invented the Electoral College? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-electoral-college-4108154 Nguyen, Tuan C. "Who Invented the Electoral College?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-electoral-college-4108154 (accessed December 6, 2022).