Jack Rakove, Stanford University – Executive Power and the Electoral College
How 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.
The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes used by 2 states, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by states of winner-take-all or district winner laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.
In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states. And in the few where they could, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote. Eventually, state laws gave the people the right to vote for President in all 50 states and DC.
The Electoral College is now the set of 538 dedicated party activists we vote for, who do not deliberate. They vote as rubberstamps for presidential candidates.
By 2020, the National Popular Vote bill could guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.
Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.
The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.
The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.