A Brief History of the Electoral College

After earning independence from Britain, the fledgling thirteen colonies knew that they needed a functional constitution, and the Articles of Confederation—which had resulted in years of civil unrest and economic issues—would no longer cut it. 

During the Constitutional Convention, one of the most hotly contested matters was that of how to elect the president. One man, James Wilson, came up with the idea of the popular vote. His proposal was disfavored because, as the majority of the U.S. population was not particularly politically-informed, the remaining delegates feared that citizens wouldn’t know who to vote for. From this concern came the idea of an indirect election, which also proved to have many issues: in less than a decade, the delegates were back to the drawing board. They then came up with a “winner-take-all” system known today as the Electoral College. 

The Electoral College is a system by which each state selects a certain number of electors (or delegates) that is proportional to the state’s population, with the idea that each state has equal representation. When citizens cast their vote, they are not voting directly for a candidate, but rather for a slate of delegates. This method has been in place for hundreds of years, and is considered a staple of American democracy. 

However, in recent decades, citizens have begun to question its efficacy. 

“Outdated,” “unfair,” and “racist” are just some of the terms opponents of the Electoral College have used to categorize it over the years. Some argue that the Electoral College does not reflect the citizens it was designed to serve, and for good reason: five presidential candidates have been elected through the Electoral College without winning the popular vote. Two of these cases have occured in just the past two decades (2000 and 2016).

But wanting to change the system is not completely novel—over 700 proposals have been introduced to alter or abolish the Electoral College since its inception. The College has never been popular amongst third-party voters, nor those in more populous states whose votes weigh less than those of citizens in smaller states (for example, although D.C. has a greater population than Wyoming, both have three electoral votes).

Another (huge) issue with the Electoral College comes from its roots in voter suppression and racism.

Following the Civil War, former slaves were counted as “whole” persons for Electoral College purposes. Although this was better than the alternative (the former “Three-fifths Compromise”), it encouraged Black voter suppression through Jim Crow laws. This gave Southern states an advantage in population count because they were given electoral votes for both their enslaved and white populations, allotting them representation for people they weren’t actually representing. This “‘further inflated the electoral count of people who were not representing all the people in their state…. so the Electoral College became a pillar of white supremacy’” (Monmouth.edu).

Whether or not you support the Electoral College, it is clear that its efficacy and legitimacy remains a hotly debated matter, and, as we continue to move forwards, it seems likely that changing demographics, ideologies, and political parties will call for revisions within our election systems. Afterall, progress requires reform at all levels, from societal change to shifts within the government.


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