Jack Rakove, Stanford University – Executive Power and the Electoral College

imgresHow did the Electoral College come to be?

Jack Rakove, professor of history and political science at Stanford University, explores the origin of this sometimes maligned style of election.

Jack Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science and (by courtesy) law at Stanford, where he has taught since 1980. His principal areas of research include the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political practice and theory of James Madison, and the role of historical knowledge in constitutional litigation. He is the author of six books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (2010), which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize, and the editor of seven others, including The Unfinished Election of 2000 (2001). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and a past president of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic.

Executive Power and the Electoral College


Of all the institutions that the framers of the United States Constitution created in 1787, the presidency was by far the most novel. In the eighteenth century there was simply no precedent available for creating a national, republican executive. The existing models of executive power were primarily monarchical in nature, and monarchy was a principle the Americans had rejected when they declared independence in 1776. Until one could determine how the executive would be chosen, one could not imagine how much political influence the president would be able to wield.

On this subject, the framers got stuck in what James Madison called “tedious and reiterated discussions” that puzzled them until the close of their debates. Their solution, the Electoral College, was not the result of confident deliberations. The framers did not adopt that system because it was the best choice available, but rather because it proved the least objectionable. If one had a popular election in a single national constituency, Americans were more likely to scatter their votes among a crew of provincial candidates than to form a majority for any candidate.. If Congress appointed the president, he would become its “tool,” unless his tenure was limited to a single term. But many of the framers thought that the promise of re-election would inspire the right kind of leadership.

Some other mode of election seemed necessary, and the Electoral College was the product of these uncertainties. Because each state would have the same number of electors as its total membership in Congress, the Electoral College built on the compromises the Convention had already adopted. Yet even then, the framers of the Constitution had no idea who the electors would be, or how they would deliberate and vote. This guaranteed that the real nature of presidential elections, and thus of presidential influence, remained to be determined, not by constitutional design, but by political experiment.

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