At what — electing presidents? Even if one accepts Joshua Spivak’s arguments in his Washington Post op-ed, the Electoral College has been much more successful than the framers thought. With only a couple of exceptions, the venerable and uniquely American institution has credibly elected presidents for 230 years.
They’re just not always the presidents that New York and California wanted:
The electoral college was designed with two purposes: to separate the branches of government in an attempt to avoid “cabals” and to prevent foreign corruption. Some of the Founding Fathers assumed it would almost never actually elect a president. In other words, we could say the electoral college failed to achieve most of what the founders designed it to do.
It was designed to elect presidents based on electors from the states, which has succeeded in every election since its inception. Cabals and foreign influence were certainly concerns, but hardly the only issues in the minds of the framers. The Articles of Confederation failed because of the lack of federal authority, which meant creating an executive. The states still wanted the executive to be chosen by the states rather than by popular election in a manner which gave each state enough influence to have a reasonable say in the choice. The motive was then what it remains today — to keep the most populous states from seizing control of the executive.
At least Spivak concedes that the founders never seriously considered direct election:
The electoral college was not a replacement for direct election — because that possibility never received serious consideration at the convention. (Only two of 11 states voted for a popular election of the president.) As James Madison’s notes make clear, there was very little support for a popular election of the president. The original idea in his influential Virginia Plan was that the new bicameral legislature — Congress — would itself gather to elect the executive, and the convention repeatedly returned to that idea.
There’s some irony in this admission, given that Spivak is arguing to do precisely what the founders almost all opposed — creating direct popular election of the president. The past election should have made clear why that creates more vulnerability to “foreign influence” than a distributed system of fifty elections does, especially in the age of social media, even if the “foreign influence” this time was relatively minuscule in the overall picture.
At any rate, Spivak argues that the system has been a failure because it hasn’t forced elections to the House since John Quincy Adams:
That’s not what happened, though. George Washington would easily win electoral majorities in 1789 and 1792. But after he left office, the electoral college plan almost immediately began to break down. Instead of multiple candidates running for the presidency as the Founding Fathers had expected, political parties quickly formed and presidential elections seemed to become one-on-one fights. The election of 1800 spelled doom for the original plan, resulting in an electoral college tie between Thomas Jefferson and his presumed running mate, Aaron Burr. The vote went to the House of Representatives (which took 36 ballots to elect Jefferson). The debacle led to the adoption of the 12th Amendment, which changed the vice president from a competitor and runner-up to (in most cases) a subservient running mate.
The next time Congress had to choose the president was in 1824, when Andrew Jackson, who finished first in the electoral college, lost in the House to John Quincy Adams. Since then (except for the disputed 1876 election), Congress has not been involved in a single presidential selection. The electoral college, instead, has moved up from its more humble beginnings as a potential nominating body to serving as the real selector of presidents.
This is a most curious assertion to make about the intent of the Electoral College. The men who created it had vision and a genius for organization, as evidenced by the durability of their designs. Had they wanted to create the Electoral College as just a nominating mechanism for the House to use in choosing a president, they could have done so very easily. Instead, the original language stated clearly that the architects of the Constitution foresaw presidential elections without House votes:
The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President.
Emphasis mine. Even in the event of a House vote, the rules stated that the vote would go by state delegations rather than by individual representatives, which excluded a popular vote even in Congress. Had the founders wanted the House to elect presidents, it would have been very simple to set up the Electoral College for that purpose — and the end result would have made it less deferential to public opinion, not more. Plus, it would have left the executive beholden to Congress and its own “cabals,” a problem which would have just gotten worse as the years rolled on.
And if the framers were disappointed that the Electoral College had actually succeeded in electing presidents in an undisputed manner, where was the effort to change it? In 1804, the Twelfth Amendment corrected a problem in the original design of presidential elections, forcing the Vice Presidency to be an elective office in itself rather than a presidential runner-up position. If the framers saw the Electoral College as a failure after the election in 1800 in any other respect, they had plenty of opportunity to fix it in that amendment. Instead, they refined and solidified the Electoral College as we know it now. They must have seen it as a success even after the corrosive and partisan Jefferson/Adams election.
We have had 57 presidential elections since the ratification of the Constitution and the Electoral College. Only three of them produced any significant controversy via the Electoral College — in 1876 and then in 2000 and 2016, when the popular votes didn’t match the outcome. That, however, was by design as Spivak concedes. The framers didn’t want direct elections, and neither did the states. They did, however, design a system which has succeeded in electing an executive in a credible and broadly embraced manner for more than two centuries, in large part because all parts of the country feel engaged in the process. I’d call that a success.
As CBS News pointed out last week, complaints about the Electoral College go back well before Bush v Gore or the collusion illusion. Birch Bayh floated the idea of ending it via a constitutional amendment in 1979, even though it had been a century since the last disputed election at that point. It’s the political equivalent of the designated hitter — a point that Americans will love to argue, but which will never get resolved.
Larry Sabato hit the nail on the head when he said the fight is about “raw power,” and that the EC won’t change in anyone’s lifetimes because of it:
Point of order on the National Popular Vote compact, though: it wouldn’t eliminate or change the Electoral College. It would just set up an agreement between states as to how to assign their electors, a power the states have always had. And for full disclosure, the NPV project covered my travel expenses last year to go to their media presentation in Hawaii, which did not include any commitment to write about it or to offer any opinion on it.