Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

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Release Date: 
September 1, 2022
Harvard University Press
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Anyone who cares about American politics, democracy, or the Constitution needs to read Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? It opens up our eyes to how we think about our political process and to whose benefit it serves.”

It’s the most misunderstood institution in American politics. It has been vilified as anti-democratic, born of slavery, and out of date. A majority of Americans want to abolish it, and there have been more constitutional amendments seeking to change it than any other thing in American politics. Yet it endures. Alexander Keyssar explains why after nearly 230 years the United States still uses the electoral college as the mechanism for selecting the president.

Keyssar topples many myths in this book. Perhaps the most important is the hero worship of the constitutional framers and the reverence we should have for the institutions they designed. While there may be some truth to the idea that the drafting of the Constitution was done with much deliberation and attention, the same cannot be said for the electoral college. As the framers debated how to select the newly created office of the president, ideas ranging from general election by the people (at least those entitled to vote) to selection by Congress were debated. A weary convention delegated the topic of presidential selection in the closing  days of their deliberations, arriving at the concept of  a special panel of electors selected by state legislatures to pick the president and vice-president.

Keyssar develops the creation of the electoral college as almost a final afterthought. It was an idea born of compromises over slavery, representation, and voting, with no empirical data on how it would work in reality. It was, as the author points out, an untested concept enjoying at best mercurial support among its creators.

Quickly with the 1788 election it already became apparent that constitutional framers, including Alexander Hamilton who eloquently defended its structure and wisdom in the Federal Papers, sought to game it in order to elect George Washington as the first president. The elections of 1888, 1792, 1796, and then 1800 featured a variety of problems in electoral college delegate selection and voting, and the reach of power that states versus Congress had in selecting the president and vice-president. Simply put, the institution we call the electoral college did not work as originally intended because there was no clear sense of how it was supposed to work. Its original defects led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804.  Yet its ratification did not fix the electoral college, or criticism of it. The remainder of the book tells the story of both.

The bulk of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? offers an excellent and perhaps the best history to date on how the electoral college has malfunctioned and how political parties and interests have sought to rig or game it to their advantage. We learn of how in 1800 and 1824 Congress selected the president because the electoral college could not select a president. The rise of political parties in the 1790s wrecked the electoral college as a non-partisan system to protect minority rights and produce consensus candidates. Keyssar tells us about the five times in history where the winner of the popular vote did not become president. And how the malfunctioning of the electoral college ended Reconstruction after the Civil War and set back civil rights for African Americans for nearly a century.

At near every step in the process and its use for presidential elections it appears to have failed, or at least it has engendered significant criticism. Repeatedly now into its third century, efforts to abolish it, replace it with a direct popular vote, or force states to chose their electors not by winner take all but by districts, or reform it in other ways, or challenge it in court  have failed.  History and polling data suggest it has never enjoyed popular support. Thus, why do we still have the electoral college?

There is no simple answer for Keyssar. It is an institution deeply imbedded in the structure of American politics. There is no consensus on what to replace it with. There is the problem of amending the Constitution, which is difficult if nearly impossible to accomplish. Winners in presidential elections have few if any incentive to end an institution that elected them, and then there are the problems of partisan politics, rivalry between or among states for power and influence, and questions of federalism. For Keyssar, there is no one good reason to keep the electoral college and a plethora for abolishing it, yet there are also many reasons why the momentum of status quo precludes that.

The book concludes with assessments and prospects for change, reviewing some of the latest proposals and dates to transform or abolish the electoral college. There is almost a pessimistic ending to the book, lamenting the problems with the institution yet acknowledging little prospect for changing or reforming it.

Without question this is the best book every written on the electoral college. It destroys any pretense to the wisdom of the framers in crafting the institution, and it points to a history of repeated problems with it. One cannot read this book without thinking about the storming of the capitol on January 6, 2021, and calls by President Trump to have Vice President Pence refuse to certify the election of Joe Biden. The constitutional language of the electoral college does not permit the vice president or Congress to do this. Moreover, fears of a stolen election by some are testing the authority of states to hack the electoral college for partisan advantage at the expense of American democracy.

Anyone who cares about American politics, democracy, or the Constitution needs to read Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? It opens up our eyes to how we think about our political process and to whose benefit it serves.