Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Direct Election of President Considered by Founding Fathers

Many today want to get rid of the electoral college method of choosing our president.  For example, there is a book called Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America.  It  has quite a lot of good information in it, though the author draws the wrong conclusion.  Or search Google for “electoral college failure” and browse through some of the 333,000 results.   Attacks on the electoral college system accelerated after the 2000 election in which Al Gore won more popular votes but George Bush won the electoral college.  The Founding Fathers considered, debated, and voted on different methods of choosing a president during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 before choosing the one they thought best.

electoral college John BelushiDeciding how to select or elect the president was one of the most difficult decisions the Founding Fathers had to make during the Convention.  They held at least sixteen votes on this one issue.  The options they considered included selection by state legislators, selection by the national legislature, and an electoral system.  They even considered direct election of the president, as many today propose, but rejected that idea.  It was brought up for a vote twice at the Convention and was rejected by a 9-1 vote on July 17 and by a 9-2 vote on August 24 (each state got one vote). [Edwards, “Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America” 79. http://goo.gl/WPoBn]

The Founders framed the Constitution so that each public official was selected by a different method.  Representatives are democratically elected by their districts. Up until 1913, senators were chosen by the state legislatures.  Today, senators are democratically elected by whole states.  Supreme court justices are chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate.  They serve for life and thus are the most independent of public opinion.  Representatives, up for reelection every two years, are most dependent on public opinion; senators serving six years are somewhat dependent on the public, but less so than representatives who run for reelection more often and have a smaller constituency.  Last, the president is chosen for a four-year term through the electoral college system.  Though the specific methodology of the electoral college has changed through the years, most notably after the 1800 election, it has always been an indirect method of choosing our president.

Thus, we have four different methods of choosing our public officials, and each public official serves for a different length of time.  This makes it virtually impossible for any party, faction, region, or socio-economic group to gain power throughout government. Exactly what our Founding Fathers intended.

Over the last hundred years, the United States has become more democratic.  States and local governments added ballot propositions, giving the people a means of bypassing the legislature and governor to pass veto-proof legislation with a simple majority.  The Seventeenth Amendment provided for direct election of senators.  Originally, state legislatures selected the members of the electoral college; now the people of each state vote on which candidate each state’s electors will choose.  Political parties used to choose their nominees, but states started moving to primary elections about 100 years ago (Oregon was the first to have a presidential preference primary in 1910).  Now, the people instead of the parties choose their nominees.  The people’s opinion gained even more strength with the advent of modern polling,

Not all these moves toward democracy are bad.  Many, if not most, would argue that allowing the people to choose a party’s nominee is better than having party bosses do so.  But overall, the trend toward democracy has weakened the systems of checks and balances our Founders established.  The Founders were very wary of democracy and rightly so.  As James Madison explains in Federalist No. 10:

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Moving to a direct election of president would be another step toward democracy, another breakdown in our system of checks and balances.  The Founding Fathers considered direct election of presidents and twice rejected it by large margins.  The Founders set up our delicate system of choosing elected officials, including the electoral college, after much study and debate with full knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses.  And with only minor modifications over the past 220 years, this system has served the nation extremely well.  I, for one, support our system of checks and balances and even propose returning to the system our Founders created by, for example, repealing the Seventeenth Amendment.  But for those who propose further “improvements,” they should only be made with great consideration and caution, much hesitancy, and by Constitutional amendment only.

Michael Newton is the author of The Path To Tyranny and is currently working on a book about the American Revolution.  He regularly blogs at The Path to Tyranny Blog.

6 comments

1 John Carey { 01.26.11 at 5:37 am }

They got the electoral college right. It was designed to give smaller states a say. If we went by popular vote, politicians would careless about North Dakota and more about states with higher populations creating an environment where smaller less populated states would be continuously rolled.

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2 James D. Best { 01.26.11 at 1:48 pm }

If the electoral college is eliminated, fly-over country will be just that for presidential candidates. Presidents will campaign and govern only the periphery of the country.

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3 Leo { 01.26.11 at 6:11 pm }

The core of your argument is that electing each level of official in a different way prevents the capture of all the levels by a single group.

1. It has not actually prevented what you say it prevented. E.g. Republican Congress, Republican Senate, Republican Presidency for some time under Bush. Democratic Congress, Democratic Senate, Democratic Presidency for some time under Obama.

2. If a state-wide vote for senators and a district-wide vote for representatives count as two different mechanisms, then a nation-wide vote for president would be a distinct mechanism not like the others and so support the checks and balances system under your line of reasoning. No one is currently elected by a nationwide vote in the US.

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4 Michael Newton { 01.26.11 at 7:37 pm }

Leo:

1. You are ignoring the Supreme Court, which takes decades to change and has been split pretty evenly, 5-4, for quite a while.

2. You are looking at regions and not methods. Representatives are elected democratically, Senators were until 1913 selected by the states, and the President through this electoral college. Directly electing the President would be the method as our election of Representatives.

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5 Caleb { 02.06.11 at 10:24 pm }

Good read Michael. Two points; one, I would posit that we’re not supposed to be a democracy as democracy is for all intents and purposes, mob rule. We are, or supposed to be, a Republic, which I know you are fully aware of this..;-)

Point 2; The 17th amendment in my opinion, should be repealed, especially now. Why? Other than the obvious reasons, the people are finally waking up and are staying pretty active in the local, county, and state government. My wife is a photographer and she has to travel to Little Rock a few times each week to take pictures at our state capitol because hundreds of people (tea party folk) are filing into the committee rooms and voicing their frustrations and opinions to our state legislators, even creating a “Report Card”, so to speak. They are being vocal, checking the votes, and getting involved in the whole process. And the legislators KNOW it, and they KNOW we are watching the heck out of them, checking every little resolution, bill, etc.

As far as the Electoral College, I think it’s the best thing we have in terms of how, or rather, how ‘well’ it works.

Well, that’s my two cents…:-)

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6 Tesla Falcon { 11.06.12 at 10:01 am }

The main problem w the modern electoral college is that it’s entirely political party centric & controlled. Originally, the electors were chosen by the state legislator based on specific criteria: male, over certain age, landowners, etc. The popular vote for the President was largely symbolic. The electors themselves were the real Voters. The number was equal to the representatives & majority winner took all. The political party was not involved in selection or appointments. Today, we have 2 sets of electors ready to vote after Nov 6th. The Democrat electors & the Republican electors. (Not enough 3rd Partyers in each state.) The party who wins today sends their electors to ‘vote’. Guess who they’ll vote for? Hmm… Odd. No one think a Democrat elector will vote for Romney?!

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