Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College / Edition 2 available in Paperback
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The distinguished contributors to Securing Democracyincluding Michael Barone, Walter Berns, and Daniel Patrick Moynihanhave an uncommonly complete understanding of the nature of American politics. They show that the American concept of democracy means much more than a prejudice for national direct elections. This book is the definitive volume for anyone interested in the logic and importance of the Electoral College, as well as the uniquely successfully democracy it has helped forge.
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About the Author
Gary L. Gregg II is a presidential scholar and the director of the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville.
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Securing DemocracyWhy We Have an Electoral College
ISI BooksCopyright © 2007 Gary L. Gregg II
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Chapter OneThe Origins and Meaning of the Electoral College Gary L. Gregg II
Its critics and supporters both have it right. The Electoral College does not work as it was intended to work by the Framers of our Constitution. But if it does not function as intended, then how was it intended to function?
This is a serious question with important implications for our understanding of American democracy and presidential elections. But despite its importance, scholars and pundits have given little attention to this basic concern. Most have either dismissed the question-as they dismiss the Electoral College itself-as archaic and uninteresting, or they have been satisfied to accept the prevailing notion about its origins without evidence or serious scrutiny. Both tendencies are unfortunate and lead to a very thin appreciation for the system and its founding principles.
The origins of the Electoral College are more obscure than they should be, not only because most scholars and political activists have found the subject uninteresting, but also because many have accepted an interpretation that says the Framers of the Constitution understood that the Electoral College would work to elect General Washington to be the first president but then would not likely work again. The College was, according to this understanding, a type of political mirage meant to conceal the true nature of presidential selection. That is, after Washington's election, the Electoral College would deadlock on a regular basis and throw the real selection of the president into the House of Representatives.
Despite a considerable lack of evidence, this "designed to fail" interpretation of the origins of the Electoral College has crept through the scholarly literature, with author after author accepting it without question. It has also found its way into American government textbooks, in which the Electoral College is typically introduced to students not only as an institution that is not useful for our own time, but also as one that was never even intended to work at all. It's no wonder that our commentators and our citizenry have found it easy to dismiss our constitutional mechanism for selecting presidents.
The Constitutional Convention
The mode of selecting the chief executive was one of the more difficult problems that occupied the minds of the men assembled during the hot summer of 1787. The question was voted on and assumed to be closed a number of times during the Convention, only to rise again and again to stir up the proceedings. The question of how to elect the executive was central to the work of the Founders, since executive power itself presented a conundrum for the age of democracy and kingship.
The members of the Constitutional Convention strove to achieve a delicate tension in the mode to be used to choose the executive officer. They did not have the luxury of taking a simple course or hubristically adhering to one ideological principle at the exclusion of the lessons of history and other important values. As was the case with the entire constitutional order they designed, they had to create a balanced approach that was at once innovative in its application and prescriptive in its design.
Three basic (and in many ways competing) values animated the Convention with respect to the mode of selecting our chief executive. First, the system would need to be based upon the sound principles of the revolution. That is, it would need to find its legitimacy in the revolution's basic recognition that the people and their communities are ultimately the source of power. It would have to be republican. Second, the system would have to be so structured as to allow the president to be sufficiently independent from other entities; only then could he act his part with vigor and resolve. Third, the method of selection would need to be designed so as to encourage the choice of a person with the proper character for the high executive office. These three core values-republicanism, independence, and virtue-guided the design of the Electoral College. With this in mind, we can better understand its genius.
Various specific modes of electing the president were proposed during the Constitutional Convention, most attempting to achieve some balance between the three oft-competing goals. Though there were numerous specific manifestations of these programs, each can be placed into one of three general categories. Either they provided for popular election, election by the national legislature (or a part thereof), or election by some version of a specially chosen body of electors or other non-national figures (such as state governors). Given that our task is to come to grips with the origins of the Electoral College method of selection, it is useful to briefly explore the alternatives that developed.
The Case for Popular Election
Polls have shown that a majority of Americans would support the replacement of the Electoral College with a direct popular election for president. In 1969 such a proposal even passed the House of Representatives, amply demonstrating that simple majoritarianism will always have an allure in a political system that values popular sovereignty and voting as highly as ours does. Simple, clear, easily understood, and comporting with our self-understanding as a democracy, majoritarianism has been the siren call of progressive historians for decades. But it has also appealed to many others throughout American history.
Was such an idea completely alien to the Founders? Were the men of Philadelphia elitists with an abiding fear of the people, as many historians have charged? The answer is complex, as is the political system they created. Yes, the Founders considered and debated the direct popular election of the president. And no, such a system did not gain much support at the Convention. But a careful look at the debates at the Convention and in subsequent ratifying conventions belies the notion that the Founders were simply undemocratic and distrustful of popular rule.
Direct popular election for president was the subject of two explicit votes by the Convention; on both occasions it was overwhelmingly defeated. On July 17, Gouverneur Morris made a motion to have the president elected by the people, but only Morris's own delegates from Pennsylvania voted in its favor. And again, on August 24, a popular election proposal was moved by Maryland's Daniel Carroll. It was defeated without any discussion at all, and with but two states supporting the idea.
The two most regular and articulate members to speak on behalf of popular election were Morris and his fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson. Wilson first apprehensively raised the possibility on June 1, though he openly feared that "it might appear chimerical." Indeed, no one even seems to have felt it necessary to immediately respond to his thoughts until he rose for a second time to declare his plan, in response to which George Mason, voicing support but finding such a mode impractical, suggested postponing the discussion until Wilson "might have time to digest it into his own form." Ironically, what Wilson would propose the next day would in actuality be closer to the eventual Electoral College system than a direct popular vote: to have the people choose a representative from their district, who would then serve as one of the immediate electors for president.
A direct popular election of the president would of course adhere to the necessity that the system be republican. Such a system would also help encourage the president to be more independent and free to act than if he were elected directly by the national legislature, which was one of the most often proposed methods of selection. In fact, each time popular selection was raised as a possibility, it was in reaction to the Convention having entrusted the legislature with such an important power. But would a system of direct election by a national populace result in the selection of a president most fit for office, while also being representative of the genius of the political system itself?
Here again, the record is complex. Some delegates spoke in favor of direct popular election as likely to result in a good choice. Morris, for instance, said, "If the people should elect, they will never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character"; that is to say, they would choose someone of "continental reputation." Others, such as Virginia's George Mason, were not so confident in the public. What is more, many of the Founders' concerns about direct popular election involved electoral dynamics and political balances more than animus toward the public. A fear of demagoguery, a concern about competing favorite-son candidates in the states, logistical and procedural concerns about a single national election, and a need to adhere to the tensions and balances of the political system they were creating seem to have conspired against a direct election as much as any concern about the public's fitness to choose.
The Case for Legislative Selection
As the vote counting, and recounting, crept forward in Florida after the election of November 7, 2000, fears began to be raised in Washington and across the country that 2000 might just be the year that the "nightmare scenario" would come true. The House of Representatives might be called to choose the president of the United States. The Supreme Court's decision to stop the recounts in select Florida counties saved Congress from having to make such a choice-and saved us all from having to witness the House of Representatives deal with this responsibility. But the Founders themselves had established the system whose back-up mechanism would be that legislative selection almost everyone hoped to avoid.
As I said earlier, some interpreters have claimed that the system of presidential election outlined in Article II of the Constitution was designed as a type of grand political shell game. On paper it would seem the president would be elected by a select group close to the people in the states, but in reality, the argument goes, it was established to routinely fail and send the actual selection of the president to the House and the selection of the vice president (perhaps) to the Senate. A close look at the Constitutional Convention and the writings of the Founders, however, provides little evidence for this interpretation.
It is true that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention did vote to have the president selected by the national legislature (or some part thereof) a number of times during the Convention. This would seem to be evidence for those who argue that the House was supposed to have routinely made the presidential choice. But if one attends closely to the context in which such votes were taken, one can expose this argument as false.
Connecticut's Roger Sherman would support legislative selection in the hopes of "making him [the president] absolutely dependent on that body"; he found independence in the executive to be "the very essence of tyranny." But Sherman is worth quoting precisely because he is so unrepresentative of thought represented at the Constitutional Convention. The overwhelming number of the other delegates shared Montesquieu's belief that the concentration of power into any single entity constituted the essence of tyranny. They would agree with James Madison's statement that "If it be a fundamental principle of free Govt. that the Legislative, Executive & Judiciary powers should be separately exercised; it is equally so that they be independently exercised." And he went on, "There is the same & perhaps greater reason why the Executive shd. be independent of the Legislature, than why the Judiciary should: A coalition of the two former powers would be more immediately & certainly dangerous to public liberty."
This basic commitment to a system of independent and separated powers pervaded the Convention and was one of the most fundamental goals when constructing the executive office. To a number of delegates this concern mitigated against any form of legislative selection. To others, it could be overcome through properly constructing the institution to build a degree of insulation between the president and the legislature.
Thus, the Convention sought to provide the president with certain institutional safeguards which, it was argued, would protect him from an overbearing legislature. Among the safeguards mentioned and subject to votes within the context of legislative selection were: giving the president a certain and fixed salary that the legislature could neither raise nor diminish; having a special committee of the legislature (perhaps even chosen by lot, as in James Wilson's proposal of July 24) choose the president and then disband; or having the legislature choose the president initially, but having incumbent presidents be elected by some other body so that they would not be beholden to the legislature for re-election.
The two most serious and regularly occurring proposals, however, were to subject the president to term limits and to make each term lengthy. These proposals often combined into a single six-year term for the president. However, to many, this medicine proved worse than the disease. Gouverneur Morris, for instance, argued that any kind of term limit on the president would encourage him to "make hay while the sun shines," while others spoke of the problems inherent in a lengthy term.
Support for legislative selection was almost always expressed in combination with one or more of these institutional innovations. And when such safeguards were not present, support for a legislative mode of selection rapidly diminished. As James Wilson would put it starkly, "[It] seems to be the unanimous sense that the Executive should not be appointed by the Legislature, unless he be rendered in-eligible a 2d. time." Following Wilson, James Madison went further:
It is essential then that the appointment of the Executive should either be drawn from some source, or held by some tenure, that will give him a free agency with regard to the Legislature. This could not be if he was to be appointable from time to time by the Legislature. It was not clear that an appointment in the Ist instance [even] with an ineligibility afterwards would not establish an improper connection between the two departments.
Thus, if one looks closely at the debates during the Constitutional Convention and the votes of the men who drafted the Constitution, one can see quite clearly that there is little evidence for the thesis that the Electoral College was a jerry-rigged system designed to regularly "fail" and send the ultimate decision to Congress. The Founders were too concerned to make the president independent of the legislature to agree to such a scheme of legislative selection, unless the president could be insulated from legislative control. Whenever the Convention demonstrated a commitment to legislative selection, it was always within the context of just such presidential insulation-usually in the form of term limits or a single, lengthy term. Except for the minor element of the legislature not being able to raise or cut a president's salary once he is in office, none of these institutional safeguards were included in the Constitution of 1787.
To assume that the Electoral College was just a throwaway institution the Framers realized would fail is to argue that the delegates completely abandoned all their concerns expressed throughout the summer concerning legislative tyranny. Such a reading goes against all the evidence.
A Third Way: The Birth of the Electoral College
With both direct popular election and election by the national legislature having proven to be problematic, a number of delegates argued for one or another version of a "third way" that would avoid the problems of the other two. In each of these proposals, specially chosen electors or other elected officials were to choose the president. And various modes were suggested for selecting the electors-from popular election, to selection by the state legislators or executives, to allowing the states to choose the mode of selecting the electors themselves (the latter solution would eventually be incorporated into Article II of the Constitution). Elbridge Gerry even suggested that the state legislators-and on a separate occasion that the state governors-be empowered to directly choose the chief magistrate.
Excerpted from Securing Democracy Copyright © 2007 by Gary L. Gregg II . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Mitch McConnell xv
The Origins and Meaning of the Electoral College Gary L. Gregg II 1
The Development and Democratization of the Electoral College Andrew E. Busch 27
Federalism, the States, and the Electoral College James R. Stoner Jr. 43
Moderating the Political Impulse Paul A. Rahe 55
The Electoral College and the Future of American Political Parties Michael Barone 79
The Electoral College and the Uniqueness of America Daniel Patrick Moynihan 87
Creating Constitutional Majorities: The Electoral College after 2000 Michael M. Uhlmann 103
Afterword: Outputs: The Electoral College Produces Presidents Walter Berns 115
Article II and the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution 121
Federalist Papers 39 and 68 129
About the Contributors 157