Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called the Electoral College “a shadow of slavery’s power” and says it “undermines our nation as a democratic republic.”
She deserves credit for noting that our country is a republic, but she’s wrong about history. While slavery was an issue that loomed over the Constitutional Convention, it had little to do with debates over how to elect the president. She is also wrong that the Electoral College undermines republican principles.
The Constitutional Convention
Under our first constitution—the Articles of Confederation—the federal government was just one legislative body. All powers were in the hands of Congress. It was government by committee, and it was a mess. The framers of what became our current Constitution wanted a real executive branch.
The Virginia Plan, the first draft of what would become the Constitution, called for “a National Executive … to be chosen by the National Legislature.” (All quotes from the Convention are from Farrand’s Records.) When the question of how to elect the executive first came up, Pennsylvania’s James Wilson proposed a popular election. Rodger Sherman from Connecticut disagreed and argued for the Virginia Plan’s parliamentary system. Virginia’s George Mason suggested that a popular election was “impracticable,” but asked Wilson to work on a modified plan.
When the Convention reconvened the next morning, Wilson had taken Mason’s advice. He presented a plan to hold popular elections to choose electors who would then vote for the national executive. In other words, an electoral college. But with so many questions remaining, Wilson’s proposal was voted down.
The next week, the Convention decided that the head of the executive branch should be just one person—the President of the United States. Later that week they debated whether to have state governors elect the president. This was rejected, but delegates were still unhappy about the Virginia Plan’s parliamentary model. They did not want the president to be controlled by Congress or by any other group of politicians.
This was the focus of most of these debates: What effect will the method of election have on the person elected? It was not just about political power, let alone about slave states versus free states. It is true that delegates raised concerns about regionalism, including between northern and southern states. But these arguments applied (and continues to apply) to the balance of power between large and small states or between cities and rural communities.
As summer wore on, the debate got a little weird. One proposal was to have a lottery in Congress to select a few members who would then be locked in a room to choose the president in secret. Another idea was that Congress appoint the president, but then have a different system for reelection that would put state legislatures in charge. These oddball efforts to fix congressional selection show that criticisms of the idea had already won.
Inventing the Electoral College
James Madison summed it up in late July: “The Option before us [is] between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people—and an immediate appointment by the people.” Madison liked the idea of a popular election, but pointed out two problems. First, people likely would prefer candidates from their own state, giving an advantage to larger states. Second, places with higher concentrations of voters would have a lot of power and might come to dominate the rest of the country. Madison pointed out that an electoral college would minimize any “opportunity for cabal, or corruption.”
Others delegates shared Madison’s concerns about small states or less populous areas being ignored. Near the end of the Convention, the question was finally given to a committee that included Madison and ten other delegates. It was these men who invented the Electoral College, almost as we know it today:
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….
The one change made, in 1804 by the Twelfth Amendment, was to require separate electoral votes for president and vice president rather than just making the runner-up the vice president. (The original system had led to fierce rivalries in the John Adams administration and a deadlock in 1800.)
Effects of the Electoral College
Historian Sean Wilentz, writing in the New York Times, sums up the initial political effect of the Electoral College with regard to slavery.
When it first took shape at the convention, the Electoral College would not have significantly helped the slave-owning states. Under the initial apportionment of the House approved by the framers, the slaveholding states would have held 39 out of 92 electoral votes, or about 42 percent. Based on the 1790 census, about 41 percent of the nation’s total white population lived in those same states, a minuscule difference. Moreover, the convention did not arrive at the formula of combining each state’s House and Senate numbers until very late in its proceedings, and there is no evidence to suggest that slavery had anything to do with it.
While most of the early presidents came from the South, and many owned slaves, these results were due to political factors unrelated to the Electoral College. For example, in 1804 and 1808, both of the leading candidates were southerners. James Monroe, despite running both times against New Yorkers, won New York along with numerous other northern states.
In 1824, it was the majority requirement in the Electoral College that sent the election to the House of Representatives where abolitionist John Quincy Adams won. Abraham Lincoln may have won the Republican Party nomination because of the Electoral College—the Party needed to win Illinois to win the White House—and the system also amplified both his White House wins.
After the Civil War, the Electoral College prodded the Democrats to moderate and reach out in northern and new western states. It forced southern Democrats, for example, to accept Irish Catholic immigrants in Northern cities into their party in order to have a better chance at winning the White House. No wonder one of the 20th centuries most zealous defenders of the Electoral College was John F. Kennedy.
When Rep. Ocasio-Cortez claims the Electoral College “undermines our nation as a democratic republic,” she forgets just how many other “democratic” nations use two-step elections to choose their executive. Every parliamentary system does—that’s part of the definition of a parliamentary system. Is Canada, or the United Kingdom, not democratic because parliament elects the prime minister?
India is often labeled the “worlds biggest democracy,” and it uses an electoral college to elect its president. Germany uses a similar system to elect its chancellor. Why do all these countries use two-step democratic processes for their national elections? For the same reasons we do: to make it harder for one region of the country to dominate everyone else. And just because a democratic process involves multiple steps, and requires something more than a raw popular vote plurality, does not mean it is not a democratic process.