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The 'chimerical' nature of election by the people

The Creation of the Electoral College

by Dr Nicholas Cole (npcole)

Cite as: Dr Nicholas Cole, ‘The 'chimerical' nature of election by the people’ in N. P. Cole, Grace Mallon and Kat Howarth, The Creation of the Electoral College, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2016), item 120.

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The 'chimerical' nature of election by the people


The brief note of Wilson's intervention here does not fully explain why he thought that election by the people directly was a 'chimerical' suggestion. Though not yet a standard way of electing a chief executive at State level, it had been adopted by the State of New York.

Perhaps Wilson was referring to the difficulties of running a national election. It would involve Congress in the management of an election which would, of necessity, have involved variation in the qualifications for voting in different states. The details of how such an election would have worked (a single national vote, or the more familiar election by district) were not considered by the Convention.

How any disputes or controversies arising from such an election would have been settled was likewise never debated. The eventual solution --- an electoral college --- to a large extent insulates the final choice from accusations of irregularity.

It seems likely that similar language would have been adopted as was written for the election of members of the House of Representatives. That is to say, States would have been instructed to manage an election using a suffrage that was the same as one used in their own domestic elections, with Congress given the power to regulate the election through legislation. Whether such an arrangement, recognizing diverse electorates, would have been as acceptable for the selection of the Presidency as it was for the selection of a state's own delegates is an impossible question to answer.

Also impossible to answer is whether such a debate would have re-opened the debate about balancing the principle of an equality of States with a desire to give them an influence proportional to their representation. The Electoral College simply adopted the compromise agreed for the legislature as a whole; perhaps a national election would have given each state a the same number of electors but required that they be chosen by district. Such a solution would have been close to the electoral college apparently imagined by Hamilton in Federalist 68.

But it is at least possible that Wilson did have in mind a genuinely national election. There would have been many practical problems to be overcome, and the only practical solution would surely have been to allow Congress wide latitude to manage such an election with its own legislation. If such was his meaning, it was not an idea that the Convention pursued.

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