The Electoral College

Is the electoral college the best method for electing the president in the 21st century? The same question was asked in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries as well. Infact, it was highly debated by the founding fathers as well. It was proposed that the president be chosen by the Congress. Others thought that “electors” should be chosen by the people in each state and the electors should then choose the President. Still others thought it would be more appropriate if the governors of the various states made the selection. Even the Senate was proposed as the best means of selecting the national executive.

Finally, there were a number who thought that the President should be selected by all of the voters throughout the nation. For a while it was the more popular view to have Congress select the President, and a resolution to that effect was actually passed. However, when the Constitution was finally drafted, the idea of using “electors” from each of the voting districts proved the more popular. It was feared that if Congress selected the President, he would be under the control of the national legislature, particularly if he were seeking its favor for a second term.

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On the other hand, the popular election of the people was rejected on the grounds that, as Alexander Hamilton said, it would invite “tumult and disorder.” It was therefore determined to elect the President by an indirect popular vote. In other words, each state would select some of its foremost people as “electors” and these would then carefully and deliberately select the candidates for the high offices of President and Vice The next question was how many electors each state should be allowed and how they should be selected. It was finally decided to give each state the same number of electors as its delegation in Congress (Representatives plus Senators).

This weighted the election of the President slightly in favor of the smaller states. Originally there was a clause attached to this provision which has since been superseded by the Twelfth Amendment. Initially, it was intended that each elector would vote for two people. The candidate receiving the most votes became President, and the one receiving the second highest number of votes became Vice President. This entire procedure was set up on the assumption that there would be no political parties and that each state would submit the best candidates it could provide. In other words, it was expected that there would be many candidates.

The theory was good on paper but it did not work out in practice. In the first place, this procedure could saddle a President with a Vice President who might be of a completely opposite political philosophy. This is precisely what happened in 1797 when John Adams, a Federalist, won the Presidency and Thomas Jefferson, an intense anti- Federalist, won the Vice Presidency. Adams wanted a strong national government, Jefferson did not. Jefferson wanted an alliance with France, Adams did not.

By 1800 these divergent political views had developed into opposing political factions, with each one supporting specific candidates for the office of both President and Vice President. However, since each elector was allowed to vote for two candidates, this automatically resulted in a tie for the two candidates sponsored by the majority party.

In 1800 Jefferson, who was being sponsored by his supporters for President, tied with Aaron Burr, who was being supported for Vice President. Under the electoral system it was then necessary for the House of Representatives to break the tie. Thirty-six separate ballots were required before Jefferson was finally chosen over Burr. Aaron Burr then became the Vice President. It was obvious that the rise of political parties had completely frustrated the original procedure and that a new electoral system had to be devised. This resulted in the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804.

The Twelfth Amendment provided that henceforth electors would prepare separate ballots, one for President and the other for Vice President. In order to obtain the electoral votes of a state, a party must carry that state. In other words, the electoral vote of a state is determined by the highest popular vote cast in that state.

The idea of a popular vote, which is the idea currently offered against the electoral college, was debated. It was believed by many at the constitutional convention that the public may be easily misled by unqualified candidates, resulting in disorder. But it seems to me that has happened several times in out nation’s history, even so. For example, many people believe that this can be seen in the Reagan administration.

The other reason for disapproval of election by popular vote by the framers was potential disadvantage to the smaller states. This is probably the best reason that contemporary politicians can give for continuing the electoral college. It ensures that all states have power in electing the president. Without the electoral college, the president would more or less be elected by California. Of course the founding fathers could not have forseen that, since California wasn’t even explored back then. Detractors of the electoral college might point to the canidacy of Rutherford B. Hayes, however. Hayes ran against Samuel J. Tilden in 1876. Both parties charged voter fraud, and both claimed to have won the states of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida.

The result was a commission of 5 senators, 5 representatives, and 5 supreme court justices. It resulted in an 8-7 vote in favor of Hayes. But despite all the arguments on either side, our current system remains out best system, because changing systems can be costly, unpredictable, and ineffective.


  1. 10/16/2000
  2. The Choice of the People? : Debating the Electoral College (Enduring Questions in American Political Life), Judith Best, May 1996, Rowman & Littlefield
  3. The Origins of theTwelfth Amendment,Tadahisa Kuroda, September 1994, Greenwood Publishing Group

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The Electoral College. (2018, Aug 25). Retrieved from