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Origins of the Electoral College

One of the most vexing aspects of America's democratic process is the electoral college. Even before the contentious election of 2020, presidential elections routinely raise questions about the practice's necessity and fairness. So, what is the electoral college, and why do we have it?

Many Americans have only a vague idea of how the electoral college works and may or may not be at all aware that their vote in presidential elections does not directly elect the Executive. All other officials in the United States are chosen by direct vote. However, when Americans vote for their President, they are actually voting for a slate of electors. Those electors are selected by their state's political parties and are expected (and pledged) to support their party's candidate. The number of electors that each state has is equal to the number of its senators and representatives, making states with large populations and large numbers of electors highly sought-after prizes.

The reasons for the electoral college might surprise most Americans. When the Founding Fathers were drafting the Constitution in 1787-88, there was a spirited debate about how the Executive would be chosen. Some of the framers believed that Congress should select the President because, at the time, many Americans lived in far-flung communities and had minimal access to information. It was a time when the news traveled very slowly. They thought most Americans did not have the resources to make informed decisions on the critical business of choosing the President.

Other framers favored establishing a direct vote, which was more in keeping with the principles of the Revolution. However, the problem with that approach was that the Northern states would likely always have an advantage over the Southern states. At the time, the populations of the two regions were roughly the same. Before the Constitution was written, the South was at a disadvantage because a large (and growing) segment of its people consisted of African American slaves who were not counted as part of its population for representation. James Madison's three-fifths compromise meant that three of every five slaves were counted for the purposes of representation and taxation, but they were not permitted to vote. 

Southern delegates at the Constitutional Convention knew that because of the compromise, adopting an indirect method of choosing the President would ensure that they maintained the advantage they had in Congress. And if they lost that advantage, they feared that their counterparts from the North might abolish slavery. It's a sad fact of American history, but the system which elicits such confusion and criticism today has its origins in the desire of the Southern states to maintain slavery.

It may be surprising to hear this from the illustrious Founders, but another reason for the establishment of the Electoral College is that they were tired, weary of debating the issue, and couldn't think of a better solution. Even James Madison, one of the most active delegates to the Convention, would later express regret at the choice upon which he and his colleagues had settled. They knew it was an imperfect system. It remains to be seen whether twenty-first-century Americans will finally replace it with something better.