Why the Founding Fathers chose the Electoral College to select the president.


Signing the Constitution September 17, 1787 Painting by Howard Chandler Christy

“[The Constitution] has proved remarkably durable and authoritative. It has anchored the national government through spectacular economic growth, social changes, and expansions of democracy and rights that were inconceivable in 1787 (italics & bolding mine). It is easy to forget that politicians produced this remarkable document — talented and often idealistic politicians, but politicians nevertheless.” (Source: The Original Compromise, by David Brian Robertson, Professor of Political Science, University of Missouri-St. Louis) p. 8)

a. The delegates didn’t like any of the alternatives. On July 17, 1787 James Wilson’s proposal to elect the President by popular vote was voted down 9 states to 1! The Founding Fathers really didn’t want the people electing the President directly. (See Steve Scott’s blog post “Six reasons why the Founding Fathers didn’t want the people to elect the President”, September 27, 2020 at AllUSCitizensShouldVote.com)

After realizing that his proposal to have the president selected by popular vote would never be approved by the other constitutional convention delegates James Wilson proposed a version of the Electoral College to select the president. But after much debate the Founding Fathers rejected his Electoral College plan too and instead decided to have Congress select the president, like they do in Great Britain with parliament selecting their prime minister. But they really weren’t happy with this choice either because the President would then be too dependent on Congress for his job and they wanted to maintain the independence of the presidency as a check on Congress becoming too powerful in the new government.

  b. After spending four months debating and arguing in the hot Philadelphia summer away from their families, farms and businesses, by the end of the Convention in September the Founding Fathers wanted desperately to go home. Then the Committee on Postponed Parts recommended on September 4(the Constitutional Convention ended two weeks later on September 17) that the best way to select the president was not to have Congress select the president but to use the Electoral College. After the the committee had made a some improvements to the Electoral College plan, the convention delegates went along with their recommendation because they liked better the committee’s new and improved version of the Electoral College and they didn’t have any interest in another long debate on how to select the president. 

c. Since everyone knew George Washington would be the first President, and that he would be great, they didn’t have to worry about how well the Electoral College would actually work for the first 8 years of the Constitution. So like good politicians they could leave the problem of the best way to select the President to be finally solved by future politicians.

  But the biggest reason the Founding Fathers finally chose the Electoral College to select the President was that all of the political factions at the convention got something out of the Electoral College system, except James Wilson who wanted the President elected directly by the people and Alexander Hamilton who wanted the President to serve for life.

  • The states liked it because each state legislature would decide how to choose its own Electors.
  • The large population states liked it because they would have the advantage when the Electors voted in the Electoral College, since there were more Electors from large states than small states.
  • 95% of the time the Convention delegates expected no candidate to have a majority of the Electoral College votes, since most delegates would vote for “favorite son” candidates from their own state. Then the House would choose from the top five vote-getters in the Electoral College with each state getting one equal vote. (Later changed to the top three in 1804). Since there were more small states than large states, the small states would then have the advantage. In effect the small states would get to pick the President in the House from a list of nominees chosen by the large states from the Electoral College vote.
  • The Southern slave states got extra Electors since 3/5 of their slaves counted as “real” people in the House even though they were treated as property and of course couldn’t vote.
  • The wealthy “elites”, just about every delegate at the Convention, liked the Electoral College because the better educated and more wealthy Electors (“the best and the brightest”) would prevent the “ignorant poor masses” from electing a president that favored “Leveling Laws” that redistributed wealth from the “elites” to the poorer “average citizens“ (18th Century version of socialism ).
  • And finally the President would not be beholden to Congress for his job, unlike if Congress selected the President, which had been the Founding Fathers’ 1st choice for selecting the President.

On September 6, 1787 the Constitutional Convention voted 10 states to 1 to use the Electoral College system to select our president.

“For of all things done in the convention the members seemed to have been prouder of that [the Electoral College] than of any other, and they seemed to regard it as having solved the problem for any country of how to choose a [President].” Max Farrand, in The Framing of the Constitution of the United States, pg. 175,

But the Founding Fathers had not taken into account the rise of political parties, which did not exist in 1787. They also could not foresee a future where voters would be better educated because of free public schools, wealthier because of the economic benefits unleashed by the industrial revolution and capitalism and better informed because of vast improvements in communication and transportation.

And voters in the 21st century would also want a more direct say in presidential elections, instead of having “elite” Electors choose the President for them in an Electoral College.

As a result the Electoral College has never worked the way the Founding Fathers intended it to work.

Words: 854

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