Electoral College

Background

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to draw up a new plan of government, they made a bold decision to divide the powers of government between three separate branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States had no executive office - the president was merely the presiding officer in Congress, and all executive power was vested in Congress. The new constitution, however, gave the president sweeping powers, including command of the armed forces. The method of electing the president, then, was extremely important.

Several proposed methods for electing the executive were put forward in the Convention. Under the Virginia Plan, the President would be elected by the national legislature; according to the plan proposed by Elbridge Gerry, the president would be elected by the various state governors. Hamilton himself suggested that the president should serve for life (although he later dropped the idea).

A direct, popular election was favored by some delegates, but was ultimately rejected as "impractical."1 A major hindrance to a popular election was the issue of slavery, which had already been a point of contention in the apportionment of representatives in Congress. In the words of James Madison,

"The right of suffrage was much more diffusiveDiffusive, Adj. Widespread. 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 the fewest objections."

In other words, because such a large portion of the population of the south was enslaved (up to 43% in South Carolina) and thus ineligible to vote, Southern States' impact on the presidential election would be drastically reduced.

When the convention first met, many delegates supported the system proposed by the Virginia Plan, that the President be elected by Congress. However, in September of 1787, the Committee of Eleven - formed to sort out some of the specifics of the new constitution, including the electoral process - approached the convention with a new proposal. Their system quickly won the delegates' approval, and was affirmed by the convention on September 6th.2

The Electoral Process Under the Constitution

The system recommended by the Committee of Eleven and adopted by the convention was quite different from the earlier proposals. The president would not be elected by the national legislature, the state governors nor the general public, but by a specially-designated body of electors assembled specifically for the task. Each state would be entitled to as many electors as it had representatives in Congress (for example, New York, with two senators and six representatives, would be allowed 8 electors), and the method of choosing the electors themselves was left to the discretion of their state legislature. These electors would meet in their respective states, where they would each vote for two people; their ballots would be sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them before both houses of Congress.

Depending on the vote tallies, the electoral process would then take one of three routes, explained as follows:

  1. The candidate with the most votes would automatically become the next President if the number of votes they received represented a majority of the whole number of electors. In the 1788 presidential election, for example, the 69 electors cast 138 votes; a candidate would have need at least 35 votes to automatically become president (George Washington ended up receiving 69 votes, one from each elector).
  2. If two candidates were to receive the same number of votes, and that amount represented a majority of the electors, the House of Representatives would choose between the two. The representatives of each state would vote as a bloc, such that one ballot would be cast for each state.
  3. Likewise, if no-one were to receive a majority of votes the House of Representatives would select from among the top five candidates in the same manner.

The candidate with the greatest number of votes after the winner would become the Vice President; if there were a tie for second place, the Senate would choose between them.

The proposed system also contained two conditional restrictions on the process described above. First, Senators, Representatives, and people holding "an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States" (i.e. federal employees) were forbidden from serving as electors; and second, each elector could cast only one of their votes for a candidate from their own state.

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