Patricia Nell Warren

Rise and Fall of the Electoral College

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 14, 2008 12:47 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics, Politics
Tags: Electoral College, Presidential election

The 1/11 Chicago Tribune tells us that Illinois' general assembly just passed HB 1685, the National Popular Vote Act. If signed into law, this bill would direct the 21 Illinois electors to cast their electoral-college votes for whatever candidate wins the popular vote nationwide, whether or not that candidate carried the popular vote in Illinois. Maryland passed a similar bill, and 42 more states have a similar bill in the works. It's a smart idea -- making an end run around the established MO of the electoral college, which is more and more under fire. But there are pros and cons on whether the college should be done away with entirely.

Often it's said that "many Americans don't know what the electoral college is." Every four years, some of us are surprised as hell when we're reminded that it exists. Our personal vote doesn't elect the President. Instead we elect the electors from our state, who total the same number as our representatives in Congress. The electors convene in our state capitol to actually elect the President. Of the 538 electors, a majority of 270 is needed. Seldom do we get to see the faces of our electors in the media -- they remain shadowy.

How did we wind up with this system, that seems so strange today?

When our honorable founders were setting up the electoral process, they had some hot debates on how our President should be chosen. Directly by the people? Or by Congress? Both those approaches were shunned as too problematical. The "people" were viewed as too uneducated to vote intelligently. Only property-owning Christian white men could vote in elections, but even they weren't trusted to make a wise choice of President! Yet letting Congress choose would give the legislative branch too much leverage against the executive branch.

So our founders opted for the electoral college. As an institution, it had been around for at least two thousand years. The original meaning of the word "college" has nothing to do with schools. In ancient Rome, a "college" was a group of people (colleagues) who governed by group decision, which involved elections. It was a smart idea in its day -- created by cultures that wanted to avoid having a hereditary ruler, or a ruler who took power by force. Distance and difficulties of travel made it hard for a far-flung people to come together and elect a leader directly. Some tribes -- including native confederacies in North America who had sophisticated government, like the Haudenosaunee of the Northeast -- elected a college-like body of local chiefs who traveled together to elect a central governing council.

More often, though, in Europe, it was the ruling aristocrats from different regions who came together to elect. Wherever it existed, the electoral college expressed a strong sense of sovereignty by those vested with the power to elect.

The ancient Roman republic used the college to elect its consuls, tribunes, judges and other offices. In times when Rome was threatened and needed defense, they elected an emergency military head of state -- Julius Caesar was one of those. In its early years, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the Roman college (along with other pagan institutions that it found useful!). To this day a college of cardinals elects the Pope.

Across early northern Europe, a number of tribes elected their kings -- notably the Franks and the Scots. For many centuries the king of Scotland was elected by a "college" of Scottish nobility till Scotland finally lost her independence to England. Probably the West's most far-reaching electoral college was the one adopted by the Holy Roman Empire in 1338, to end the Pope's practice of choosing the Emperor directly. As a symptom of emerging national sovereignty in Europe, seven powerful kingdoms sent their prince-electors to vote for Emperor -- 1792 being the last time that these imposing gentlemen met.

In 1581, when the seven Dutch provinces threw off Holy Roman Empire rule and confederated themselves into an independent republic called the Netherlands, their seven governments elected a central body that functioned like a college. In time of need, as the Romans did, the Dutch elected a military head of state called the Stadtholder.

These historical examples were known to our founders, who were all highly educated people. Especially the Dutch and Scotch examples were known, since large numbers of politically conscious Scots and Dutch had emigrated to the American colonies. We should remember that many of our founders were descendants of aristocratic families and still had some aristocratic attitude, even though they no longer wore titles. They had rejected the idea of rule by England, a hereditary monarchy, so in their eyes the best option was to organize our nation as another republic, modeled on the old Roman structure. This meant that they would favor the old aristocratic institutions -- like the electoral college. But they opted to make the U.S. head of state a permanent figure, rather than one for emergency.

Also important to remember: our states were originally little independent nations. Like the Dutch provinces, the 13 former colonies confederated themselves into a republic after their war of independence, with the idea that they would retain a powerful sovereignty within that structure. So it was natural to express that state sovereignty by creating a college in which each state could vote for President.

Today the electoral college is under increasing attack -- especially after its quirky performance in the 2000 election. The national popular vote would have put Al Gore in the White House. But when the electors met, their 270 majority went to George Bush. Defenders of the electoral college are usually conservatives who point out that we were founded as a republic, not a democracy, so we would be traitors to tradition if we were to junk the electoral college. They see the college as a useful buffer zone between popular passions and the Oval Office. They also fear that popular votes can sometimes put a dictator in office.

On the other side, critics point out that the U.S. has in fact moved away from being an aristocracy-driven republic towards being a citizen-driven democracy. By ending slavery and broadening suffrage to most citizens, we are now operating on the principle of "one man, one vote." So we can't have a real democracy unless we elect the President directly by popular vote. Hillary Clinton is one candidate who has said that she favors ditching the electoral college.

After November, no matter which way the vote goes, I'm sure the controversy will only get hotter.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

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Thanks for this wonderful genealogy of the electoral college.

I can't believe that Illinois and Maryland are tying their electors to the popular vote, though. I hope the trend doesn't continue with only blue states joining in! That would put Democrats at a severe disadvantage.

That Chicago Tribune article, though, points out that the laws stipulate that they'll only go into effect when a majority of electors' states pass similar laws. I just hope that it isn't, once again, more liberal states on one side, more conservative on the other. It'll just bias everything more right-ward, IMHO.

Good lesson in politics 101!So many forget what there realy voting for in the general election.But if we go with the popular vote a candidate can flat out ignore states and not even place there selfs on the ballot.Remember to be a real Presdient one should be on all 50 state ballots plus DC not just a few and yes being on just a few select states will get you popularly elected.With out some states even getting to support or reject you so be leary of the popular vote unless we develop a national election ballot that all states have to use not just some of the candidates on some of the states ballots.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | January 14, 2008 8:28 PM

Glancing at today's news, it appears that New Jersey is now one of the states that have adopted the measurer.

Personally, I think the electoral college's time has passed.

Ashley McCluskey | November 1, 2010 5:14 PM

As far as the National Popular Vote bill, I don’t agree with it and I would not vote for it. It seems to me after some research, that it’s basically creating the same, so called, problem that people have now with the electoral college just the opposite. People claim American’s don’t have any say at all to whom is elected as president, (let’s not forget that we do elect our electors)that it doesn’t matter who we vote for all that matters in the end are those 270 out of 538 votes in the electoral college, but isn’t this the same thing just on the other side? The bill says “all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)”.( Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote and at So why have the electoral voters at all then? How does this create any sort of “buffer” zone in case we happen to elect a tyrant? I think the only way to make the system better is instead of appointing the same amount of electors equal to the number of members in the House of Representatives; there should be an equal amount of electors for each state to represent that state. I don’t believe it’s constitutional for the bigger states to still have the upper hand in voting because they have more electors to represent their vote. Now, I like the Electoral College I just think it needs to be revised a little.