Jump To

The final iteration of the electoral college

The Creation of the Electoral College

by Dr Nicholas Cole (npcole)

Cite as: Dr Nicholas Cole, ‘The final iteration of the electoral college’ in N. P. Cole, Grace Mallon and Kat Howarth, The Creation of the Electoral College, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2016), item 81.

To see the full record of a committee, click on the corresponding committee on the map below.

Preparing Visualisation - please wait

The final iteration of the electoral college


The process of electing the Executive was tidied up by the Committee of Style and subsequent minor alterations, until it resembled the form we can see here as Article II, Section 1 of the final draft of the Constitution.

The process had been subject to multiple changes between its initial form in the Virginia Plan and the final form we see here, including a long period of time where there was to be no electoral college at all, but rather an election by the National Legislature. Encouraged in part by a desire for Separation of Powers, however, the final form creates an electoral college whose electors were chosen by State Legislatures, but could not be members of the Legislature. Those electors then were to vote for two persons, one not of their state; the winner of a majority of votes would be president, and if no candidate had a majority the House would choose between the top five candidates. In the event of a tie, the House would also have the power to choose the President.

Each state was to choose a number of electors equal to the number of Senators and Representatives the state had in Congress, which lead to differences between the number of electors each state was entitled to. The adoption of this formula meant that the size and shape of the electoral college would be dependent upon decisions made elsewhere in the Constitution concerning the mechanisms to balance at a national level the influence of populous and small states. The use of the entire congressional delegation to allot electors, given the decisions made concerning the Senate, in which each state was to have an equal voice, meant that smaller states were over-represented in the electoral college.

The arrangements for choosing and instructing the electors was left as a matter for the state legislatures; earlier proposals for directing a popular election were entirely dropped. In contrast to this silence on how electors should be chosen, the Constitution gives considerable detail about the process for election, directing that electors should not meet together as a group, but should rather meet in their separate states and then transmit the details of their deliberations to the Senate. The Constitution is written as if the electors in each state would vote in ignorance of the votes taken in other states, though even in the 1780s, it must have been obvious that there would be co-ordination and (covert even if not overt) campaigning on a national scale.

The arrangements given here were subsequently amended by the Twelfth Amendment (1803) to separate the votes for President and Vice-President, allowing candidates to run together rather than, as in 1796, when Jefferson was elected as John Adams's Vice-President, resulting in a President and Vice-President from different parties.

States did use the flexibility allowed by this system in different ways. In the 1796 election, the legislatures of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Vermont simply appointed electors. The remaining states ran elections to choose electors, running either state-wide polls or elections by district, or (in the case of Tennessee) an even more complicated procedure.

The temptation to persuade states to adjust their mechanism for choosing electors for partisan advantage meant that the 1800 election saw several changes. Most notably, Virginia switched from a system of appointing electors by district to a winner-take-all system. This move was rapidly copied by other states in subsequent elections and at the time of writing almost all states now award their electoral college places to electors from the party that wins a state-wide poll.

In Thomas Jefferson's view, one could talk of the President being elected by 'the people' by 1816, in spite of the electoral college and the flexibility allowed to states. He wrote: the 'Executive [can be considered] more republican than the Senate, from it’s shorter term, it’s election by the people, in practice, (for they vote for A. only on an assurance that he will vote for B.) & because, in practice also, a principle of rotation seems to be in a course of establishment.'[1] (Washington's example of serving only two terms served as an example to other Presidents until the Twentieth Century. It is now enforced by a Constitutional Amendment written in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt's refusal to abide by this convention in 1940 and 1944). Though states retained the option to select electors in undemocratic ways, the pressure to adopt more republican modes of selection won out.

[1] http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-10-02-0053

Approved for publication