Refreshing my memory about the Electoral College


Never mind all the paintings you’ve seen; most photographs of “Hamilton” found via Google look like this.

In a comment earlier today, I sought to excuse myself from any errors in memory by confessing that I hadn’t read all of the Federalist Papers in decades.

Realizing that was lame, I decided that I should at least go back and read the one that addressed the subject at hand, the Electoral College. That’s Federalist No. 68, probably by Hamilton.

I must say, there was little mentioned about the importance of having the president chosen by states rather than masses of people, beyond oblique references such as these:

And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place….

Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States….

But such commentary is hardly necessary since the Constitution itself makes it perfectly clear that the president is to be chosen by electors who are themselves chosen by states:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

So there.

Of course, there is a good deal to suggest that Hamilton thought it proper that the method of selection defer to “the sense of the people,” not least the fact that the House would be the body to decide if a clear winner did not emerge from the electors’ deliberation.

Note that the idea that there should be deliberation, and not an up-or-down vote of the people, was crystal-clear:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations….

Also, remember yesterday when I suggested that “It would be nice for it to be an actual COLLEGE, in which people study year after year our nation’s history and political science, so that they are completely infused with the kind of knowledge that Donald Trump utterly lacks?”

Hamilton would have hated that idea, apparently. He thought the temporary nature of the college — assembled ad hoc, for the immediate task of electing a president once — was one of the system’s great virtues. Of the Framers, he wrote:

They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it….

The context of that, by the way, was in part to guard against this danger:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention….

Vladimir Putin might get a good chuckle out of that. But on the other hand, every foreign government except those of Russia and China preferred Hillary Clinton. Still, can the mechanism be said to work when the desires of our allies are thwarted, and the preferences of our adversaries granted?

If you haven’t wept for your country yet after last week, consider this hope of Hamilton’s:

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications…. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. … we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration….


The final irony is that, while today the College is perhaps the most reviled part of the Constitution, at the time Hamilton saw it as hardly needing defending, since it was one of the few parts not being heavily criticized:

THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. [1] I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for….

What a difference a couple of centuries make…

17 thoughts on “Refreshing my memory about the Electoral College

  1. Bryan Caskey

    While you’re at it, go back and read Federalist 10. It’s right up your alley.

    It’s all about why a republic is better than direct democracy and how federalism solves the problems of representation (state and local governments have smaller constituencies, and are therefore more responsive) while viewing factions a/k/a political parties as an evil to be thwarted.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      OK, but let me get some work done here first.

      I’ll look forward to reading that one again, since those are some of my fave themes from the Papers.

      (Like Hamilton and Madison had room to talk about factions…)

  2. Doug Ross

    “Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. ”

    As the Talking Heads sang, “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. The greatest challenge of government is weeding out the people who want to use it for their own benefit.

    Shakes fist at Founding Fathers for not being smart enough to put term limits into Constitution. Would they ever expect someone like Strom Thurmond to serve for 48 years?

    1. bud

      The greatest challenge of government is weeding out the people who want to use it for their own benefit.

      Wow! Seriously Doug we just elected to POTUS the absolute poster child of poster children of men who will use government for their own benefit. His many troubled properties are likely to get a boost in the arm from his massive conflicts of interest.

      As for term limits we have it now for POTUS. Without it we’d be looking forward to another successful 4 years of Obama, perhaps the most popular president in my lifetime. As for the other offices just vote em out. The founding fathers screwed up royally with the horrid electoral college but not having term limits is one of the things they got right.

  3. Bill

    On the notion that the Framers were right in all things, including the Electoral College, and can never be improved on, I would first point out that the College already doesn’t operate as originally envisioned. If it did, we would now have a President Trump and a Vice President Clinton. So there’s that.

    And it’s worth pointing out that Hamilton and Madison envisioned Electors being chosen on a district-by-district basis (popular vote). “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” did not mean the legislature would necessarily elect the Electors.

    More importantly, the Framers weren’t hide-bound to tradition, they were ready and willing to toss established mechanisms that were no longer effective in promoting the welfare of the country as a whole. That’s what they did when they scrapped the Articles of Confederation. Nothing should be turned into dogma. Governments and the way they’re elected can be altered to fit new circumstances.

    As Abe Lincoln put it:
    “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Sure, but the XII Amendment was a tweak, not a wholesale scrapping of the EC, which was necessary due to the rise of political parties. You’re right though, that the district-by-district model was what was originally envisioned. I wonder what Hamilton thought of SC choosing electors via the SC legislature. I’d be interested to see if he wrote anything about our process. I don’t think the early citizens of SC ever voted for president. Didn’t our legislature vote on the electors?

      In that regard, there’s nothing Constitutionally prohibiting any state from deciding how it wants to allocate it’s electors. SC could decide that it wants to revert to the Hamiltonian plan and just send up some “free agent” electors who can vote however they feel. I would guess that the thing that stands in the way of something like that is the political parties themselves.

  4. David Carlton

    Recourse to *The Federalist* isn’t the best way to understand the Framers’ actual thinking; it was in the manner of an after-the-fact justification for what they did. If you go to what we know of the actual deliberations of the Convention, a quite different account appears. See Akhil Reed Amar’s November 8 piece in *Time*:

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Also, David, I (and a lot of other people) don’t agree when you say, “Recourse to *The Federalist* isn’t the best way to understand the Framers’ actual thinking.”

      I don’t think it’s the ONLY way, but I can’t think of a better one.

      When I looked up No. 68 this morning, I saw a reference that seemed to imply it was written BEFORE the decisions were made at the Convention. I went elsewhere to check, and confirmed that the articles were exactly what I thought they were — oped pieces meant to sell the already-completed document.

      If written BEFORE or DURING deliberations, such an article would only reflect what the writer hoped to get out of the process.

      Written after, the articles represent an invaluable guide to exactly how the driving forces behind the Constitution (representing both factions of what would be our first party system) intended for the foundational document to be understood.

      And yeah, the Papers are Opinion, not objective reporting. These guys are trying to SELL the Constitution, not just describe it. But that — the interplay between criticism of their efforts and their answers to that criticism — just makes the documents that much more valuable. Call it prejudice resulting from my long work experience, but I generally get more out of well-crafted opinion than I do from “objective” news reports, whether I agree with what’s being asserted or not. Because arguments go deeper than stenography…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Of course, it’s important to approach these documents with a grounding in the period and its politics. That should go without saying, but I’ll go ahead and say it…

      2. Bill

        Hang on a minute. I think all he’s saying is that there was more involved in the debates over the Constitution than what is captured in the (abstract intellectual) arguments presented in the Federalist (and Anti-Federalist) Papers. They are an important source, but not the sole authority on what the Framers were thinking, let alone what they achieved – since the final product was the result of messy compromises involving motivations not necessarily explicit in the Federalist Papers.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      “Recourse to *The Federalist* isn’t the best way to understand the Framers’ actual thinking”

      Huh? Gonna have to go ahead and disagree. They were published in an effort to persuade ratification of the Constitution, so I don’t think you can really say it’s a post hoc justification. And both Jay and Hamilton were New Yorkers, so you can hardly put them in the southern slaveholders camp.

      And as for the TIME article. Well, yeah. Slavery was the elephant in the room for everything in the US until 1861, when folks decided to get it out in the open.

      But the argument that Amar attributes to slavery to the EC seems to be off. The EC is really more about compromising the problem that the states have relative population differences, and the Constitution was a compromise between states, not individuals. The big states had to figure out how to get the little states on board. Now obviously, because of slavery and the fact that the southern states had an agrarian economy they had less population than the northern states. That’s why the southern states had less population, but heck, we don’t have slavery now, and southern states still have less population.

      I think when you boil it down, the EC is really a compromise between big states and little states, just like the bicameral legislature was.

  5. bud

    We can talk about federalism, land area, states rights and all the various minutia til the cows come home. But at the end of the day none of those things was ever a consideration when the electoral college was established. And besides, as David points out, the founding fathers understood that complete devotion to any particular way of doing things was never intended as an absolute. Hence the amendment process. The only consideration was to provide a buffer between the people and the selection of the highest office in the land. They never intended to establish this clumsy approximation of the popular vote. And folks I will argue with you til the end of time that this is what we have now, nothing else. It is working today as a means of electing the white voters candidate. White people shouldn’t have more power than others just because they live in rural Iowa rather than Harlem. But they do. It’s not about nationalizing the vote or giving smaller states a bigger voice or giving artificially drawn boundaries a voice or in any other noble, high-minded reason. Everyone is trying to justify a system that just gave of a serial groper. Nothing high minded, just damn stupid to continue with this affront to decency. And just watch how fast this damn terrible thing goes away once Republicans lose one. That will be the ultimate proof of just how all these graduate school weasel words are nothing but a strained exercise in defending the indefensible. Now I’m going to drink a beer before Trump makes it impossible for me to buy one.

  6. Scout

    Well then clearly we screwed up if…..

    “the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias.”

    I’m pretty sure the Trump Electors have some sinister Hillary bias..

    Oh wait, doesn’t ‘sinister’ really mean left. Maybe they don’t.


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