To understand why we have the Electoral College, just remember the Three C’s

​The Electoral College has officially selected Donald Trump to be president, which means it can go back to not existing for the next four years.  This year was pretty rough for the EC, largely because Trump won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote.  It’s not the first time that’s happened: John “Quincy ME” Adams, Rutherford “Bye Bye Reconstruction” Hayes, Benjamin “I’m Totally Going to Get Reelected You Guys” Harrison, and George W. “Unfinished Business” Bush also won the popular vote without winning the Electoral College.  But, I’m not bringing up the EC because I like to give forgotten presidents nicknames.  I’m bringing it up because this whole situation has gotten a lot of people asking, “Why do we have the Electoral College?”

That’s simple.  If you want to know why the Framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College, all you have to do is remember the Three C’s: Closing Time, Compromise, and Can’t Everybody Just Be George Washington?

Closing Time: As with most colleges, procrastination played a major role in the Electoral College.  Indeed, so many things were put off in the Constitutional Convention, they had their own committee: The Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters.  Strange as it sounds, the method for selecting the president didn’t get much attention until the very end.  Throughout the Convention, most members just assumed the president would either be elected by state legislatures or by Congress.  Which brings us to…

Compromise: If you’ve ever wondered why so much of the Constitution is vague, ambiguous, or unusually focused on fractions of slaves, this is why.  Convention attendees were obsessed with compromise.  This was partly because they weren’t actually SUPPOSED to be writing a new constitution – they were just supposed to be fixing problems with the existing one, the Articles of Confederation.  They also wanted something more stable than the Articles, so they needed to get everyone on board.  When they finally got around to how to elect the president, some members objected to having Congress pick the president (It would make the president too beholden to Congress) or to having state legislatures pick them (It would make them too beholden to state legislatures.).  At the same time, proponents of these methods objected to a popular vote, as they felt it could result in a demagogue being elected.   It was in this atmosphere that everyone asked the question…

Can’t Everybody Just Be George Washington?: Although Washington was at the Convention, he didn’t contribute much to the actual writing.  However, he was so highly respected that whenever it seemed he disapproved of something, members scrambled to change it more to his liking.  Also, everyone assumed Washington would be the first president, and everyone assumed he’d be a good one.  In addition to having a compromise between the popular vote and the not popular vote, the writers wanted to make sure that subsequent presidents would be as good as it was assumed Washington would be.  The Electoral College was created in this atmosphere.  Electors would be a line of defense between voters, whose passions frequently change, and the presidency.  As political parties didn’t yet exist and campaigning for one’s self was looked down upon, the EC could also be a way to help select the best candidates.

As with many things in the Constitution, current arguments for and against the Electoral College are way different now than they were at its writing.  Sure, the one about how someone can win the popular vote and lose the presidency is still there, but no one’s arguing Congress or state legislatures should choose the president instead.  But, as society changes (Political parties didn’t exist when the Constitution was written; campaigning for one’s self was looked down upon; only white landowning males could vote), so do justifications for and against the EC.  And, it’s not like the EC itself hasn’t changed: Its numbers are based on the number of senators and representatives, which was originally supposed to continue to grow with the country’s population.  Instead, various laws have resulted in that number being capped at 538, instead of continuing to grow (which would have resulted in several thousand more representatives and electors).  Finally, it should be noted that states are free to develop their own methods for choosing electors.  While most have gone with a winner-take-all system, a few go by congressional district instead, and in some states it’s illegal for electors to go against the state’s popular vote, while in others it’s not.  Due to these and other factors, arguments for and against the Electoral College – as well as who is on which side of the debate – have changed throughout its history.

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