Quora Question: Why Does the Electoral College Exist?

Congressional staff pass along the vote certificate for the state of Maryland during a joint session of Congress held to certify the electoral college results and deem President Barack Obama the U.S. president in the Capitol in Washington on January 4, 2013. Reuters

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Answer from Shea Robison, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Public Policy:

Every semester in my Introduction to American Government classes I devote an entire class discussion or two to the Electoral College. One of the main reasons I spend this much time on this topic is that the Electoral College is perhaps the one issue that semester after semester my students consistently ask about and want to talk about. It is interesting to me to observe how much my own understanding of the Electoral College continually deepens over time by "teaching" this concept.

First, there is a lot of cynicism in the answers already given to the question of why it exists, which mirrors the general attitudes of my students toward the Electoral College. I must confess that this was also my understanding of the Electoral College, as well, for years and for the first few semesters I taught this concept.

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However, over the last couple of semesters as I have dug deeper to be able to provide answers to my students during class I have significantly changed my attitude towards the Electoral College and the Framers in their conceptualization of it—although important distinctions need to be made between the original conception, the early implementation and the modern and contemporary implementation of the original concept.

For starters, any one interested in the Electoral College needs to at least read the relevant Article (II) section (1) and clauses (2-4) of the Constitution. These are short and (relatively) straightforward instructions, but laden with important information. If you can read the Constitutional Convention debates about this, that would be good as well, but really just the language in the Constitution reveals a lot that is overlooked in the cynical conspiracies that abound about the Electoral College. In particular, though, as I tell my students, as you read keep in mind the material circumstances of the time especially in terms of travel and communication technologies.

Now, the issue at hand is the election of a national executive in the body of one person. For all sorts of very reasonable reasons, the Framers decided that the election of this executive should be conducted on the same day all over the country. Even though the country was a fraction of the size it is now, just the logistics of conducting a national election on the same day to decide on one person are daunting enough, to say the least. Not to mention the issues raised by the level of political awareness of most of the population at this time (e.g., how much knowledge about national politics would a farmer in western Pennsylvania share in common with a barrelmaker in Georgia? What are the odds they would even know the same people to vote for as national executives, other than a very few well-known public figures and Revolutionary War heroes? And even then, how much of their platform would they be familiar with enough to make an informed choice?).

So given all of these considerable constraints, what the Framers decided upon was an electoral system in which electors are chosen at the state level according to the level of representation in the national legislature. The decision of how these electors are chosen is notably left up to the state legislatures (e.g., via popular vote or selected by the state legislatures), but regardless these electors were then able to be chosen well before the day of election. On election day these electors then meet, deliberate, narrow their options down to two people according to other conditions set in the Constitution, such as at least one of these people cannot be from that state, and then cast their votes for the executive. The voting lists compiled by the electors from all the states are then signed, certified, sealed and sent to the seat of government. When all the electoral ballots are received, they are opened by the president of the Senate in the presence of both national houses, the votes are counted, and whichever individual gets a majority of the votes from all the state electors is the President.

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Now, getting these small groups of electors in each state together to all cast their votes on the same day was an immeasurably easier task compared to conducting a national popular election in the 1780s, not to mention making it much easier to ensure there is not overt voter fraud at least in the sense of ballot box stuffing and in tabulating the results. Plus, these electors selected by the legislatures or by popular vote were also likely to be much more informed about the political scene than the farmer or barrelmaker mentioned before, even if still in a relatively provincial sense, and thus the odds that the electors of different states select some of the same people is greatly increased. Even so, most of these state electors were likely to choose many different people. If a person were to show up on enough states ballots to win a clear majority—keeping in mind there was absolutely nothing like the national campaigning for President that goes on nowthis is probably a pretty good indication that this person has a national appeal and some kind of national-level respect.

This is how the Electoral College was intended to work, and all things considered I think it was a pretty clever kluge to address the considerable—almost insurmountable—constraints faced by the Framers for the selection of a national Executive. This is not to say that some of the issues raised by other respondents are not relevant, but these must be weighed against the very immediate practical concerns just discussed.

The preceding is my short answer to the question as to why the Electoral College and not direct popular vote originally existed. Now, circumstances are extraordinarily different today. In a technical sense it is obviously feasible to conduct a nationwide one-day popular vote—because that is what we already do, just when most people think they are voting for a President they are actually selecting a slate of electors from one party or the other—which raises the question why do we continue to use the Electoral College and not a direct popular vote. To answer this question would take at least another post of similar length as this one.

To conclude, though, I will say that in my classes we have discussed a number of different alternative schemes to the Electoral College, many of which are quite clever, but every single one of them exhibits flaws equal to or greater than the Electoral College (the primary problem being the unequal distribution of population which stymies every single other option we have discussed in class so far). Thus, my conclusion from years of teaching and discussing the Electoral College is that far from being a hopelessly flawed cynical conspiracy, it is actually a surprisingly functional and robust solution to a likely unsolvable problem. Surprise.

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