Time to Abandon Electoral College, Says History Researcher

By Tom McLaughlin

It seems like clockwork every four years: a U.S. presidential election takes place, the electoral and popular votes are tallied, and the debate over the use of the Electoral College promptly ensues.

Shankman explains that the founders had never imagined the Electoral College would be used to determine the presidency.

By that time, says Andrew Shankman, the discussion is long overdue – in fact, over 200 years and counting.

“Most people have little knowledge of the Electoral College’s origins and history, so this lack of understanding fuels the bitter divide over the issue – and what we should do about it,” says the professor of history at Rutgers University–Camden.

Shankman explains that the U.S. Constitution created the original Electoral College at the country’s inception. Inspired by the classical republics of Greece and Rome, the founders believed that these states had collapsed when leaders stopped seeking “the public good” and broke into rival parties to pursue their own interests. They felt that most citizens were unable to comprehend the public good and needed a group of “great and talented men” to guide them – one without political parties and evenly distributed geographically.

The founders believed that “without political parties to inflame passions and mobilize voters into a few large groups, only rarely would a candidate gain majority support in the Electoral College,” says Shankman. “The Electoral College would helpfully sort out five from the larger group of the equally qualified, but usually would do little more than that.”

Only in light of these assumptions, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, did the Electoral College make sense. According to the original plan, each state appointed a number of electors equal to its number of senators – two – plus representatives apportioned at a ratio of one for every 30,000 residents. Each elector then cast two votes for president, one which had to be for someone outside the elector’s home state. Whoever received the most votes was elected president and the second most became vice president.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher maintains that he prefers the “democratic straightforwardness” of the popular vote.

“Of course, these original procedures sound crazy to us now,” says Shankman. “To use this year’s election as an example, Donald Trump or Joe Biden would be elected president, and the other would become vice president.”

However, almost immediately after ratifying the Constitution, “reality obliterated the founders’ plan,” says Shankman. Bitter divisions over domestic and foreign policies emerged, and two competing political parties were formed. “Divided founders became adversarial party leaders” and large voting blocs made it likely that one of the two parties would gain a majority in the Electoral College.

“The Electoral College would now do what the founders never imagined it should routinely do – determine the presidency,” says Shankman. “And the new president’s most powerful critic, the leader of the opposition party, would likely get the second most electoral votes, become the vice president, and bring bitter partisan rancor into the heart of the executive branch.”

By 1804, the Electoral College had become a source of chaos and contention, and was abandoned. This led to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, which required that electors vote for a president and vice president on a single ticket.

“In abandoning the founders’ vision for the Electoral College,” says Shankman, “Americans were admitting that they did not live in the sort of republic where the founders’ Electoral College made sense: one where virtuous gentlemen pursued the singular unifying public good about which they all agreed.”

By altering the Electoral College as they did, he continues, Americans of the early 19th century left their current-day counterparts “a hybrid and confused version of the original.”

“Political parties ensured that getting the most votes mattered, but these parties were left to trust that their votes are distributed in just the right way to gain an electoral majority,” says Shankman, author of the book Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and the American Founding (Oxford University Press).

The practice was further distorted when Congress passed a federal law in 1929 to fix the size of the House to the 1910 census, when the population of the U.S. was 95.5 million.

“In its current form, the Electoral College has become indefensible.” – Andrew Shankman

The predicament has now led to chronic chaos, says Shankman, noting that the electoral vote has diverged from the popular vote in 40 percent of the presidential elections of the 21st century with the strong likelihood of the divergence occurring more frequently from now on.

“We see how quickly and vastly our political culture and assumptions changed after the ratification of the Constitution and creation of the first Electoral College,” says Shankman. “In its current form, the Electoral College has become indefensible.”

So the big question remains: Why not just get rid of the Electoral College?

Although he’d vote for that, says Shankman, it is most likely impossible to get rid of the Electoral College today since it would require a constitutional amendment. A much easier solution, he says, is to pass a new law pegging the House more closely to the current population of 330 million – adding another 300 representatives – and distribute them based on the current formula, thereby increasing the number of electoral votes in the most populated states.

“Then the Electoral College would cease to be a problem since it would much more closely correlate with population,” he says. “It would make a divergence between popular vote and electoral vote a lot less likely – and are you really going to argue that we can’t have 775 representatives in the people’s House to represent 330 million in the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher maintains that he prefers the “democratic straightforwardness” of the popular vote – the one who gets the most votes becomes president. He posits that there is a way to have the popular vote determine the outcome anyway: many states are seeking to engage in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact in which they would all agree to award their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner regardless of the outcome in their states. If states that collectively had 270 or more electoral votes agreed, then the popular vote winner would always be elected president.

“I think any change that moves us closer to the person who got the most votes winning an election is getting us closer to honoring the people’s collective choice,” says Shankman, “if ‘the people’s collective choice’ is defined as having election outcomes reflect what a majority voted for.”

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