When the popular vote for president doesn’t decide the winner, everyone is reminded that it’s the Electoral College vote that really counts. The reason we have the Electoral College goes back to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The short answer for its existence is that it was a compromise to get the slave states to agree to sign on to the Constitution. When direct election of the president was proposed, James Madison’s immediate response was that the South wouldn’t go for it. He argued that they would lose every time because most Southern states had low populations.
With a popular vote, one reason the South would be at a disadvantage was because a large percentage of its population was slaves, and slaves couldn’t vote. The compromise reached that included the Electoral College allowed states to count slaves, albeit at a discount (the three-fifths clause), and that’s what gave the South the early inside track in presidential elections. That’s one reason why Virginians were most of the early presidents. (Virginia was the most populous state at the time and had a large slave population that boosted its electoral vote count.)
Most people don’t know about the slavery aspect of the Electoral College. They’re taught that it was about federalism and institutional checks. The standard line is that the electors were wise elders making choices instead of the ignorant or unruly citizenry, but from the beginning most electors were nobodies. They’re not on the ballot. The Constitution prohibits them from being real notables like senators or representatives. They have to meet on a single day, which means there’s no time for them to deliberate with each other. The idea that the Framers created an Electoral College because they didn’t trust voters doesn’t line up with the facts.
With the Electoral College, there are many people who feel their vote is meaningless because they live in a politically homogeneous state. Without the Electoral College, greater turnout would be encouraged in a couple of ways. First, it makes every state a swing state in that the margin of victory matters, and so every voter can make a difference. Second, it creates incentives for states seeking to maximize their clout to facilitate voting. Today, if a state makes it hard for people to vote, it pays no Electoral College penalty. It gets the same number of electoral votes whether it makes it easy or hard for citizens to participate. In a direct election, states that facilitate and encourage voting would loom larger in the final count. That would give states an incentive to experiment in ways that promote democracy.
There is a move afoot called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It’s an idea that several states have already endorsed. Under this idea, state legislatures have agreed that if enough other state legislatures agree, they will give their state’s electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. It’s a lot easier to accomplish than the alternative, a constitutional amendment.
Walt Thode is a retired Navy lab employee who grew up and lives in Boise.