The Electoral College & The Federalist Papers

by Mary Rohweder

Widener University Political Science Major

The Electoral College should be retained due the successful fulfillment of its original goal – creating a barrier in the event that the popular vote should cast a man unsuited for the role of President into office. The Electoral College exists, according to the Federalist Papers, in order to account for the opportunity of the tyranny of the majority or factions to select a President that may be unfit to hold office. The members of the Electoral College are entrusted with the responsibility of choosing the President and members are chosen by the people of the states per presidential election. Members are well-educated about the candidates as well as the American political structure, thus removing them from bias and ensuring that a president is chosen, according to Hamilton, “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” General citizens are certainly well advanced in literacy and political knowledge since the days of the Federalist Party. However, the Electoral College rarely opposes the popular vote – but when it does, the opposition is executed in wise conscience based upon the Federalist’s intentions. The President has the capacity to leave a significant historical impact, even in the term of four years. A politician who is highly popular at the moment may not make the best candidate for the full term, and so the Electoral College considers such with greater reverence. The Electoral College serves as a successful method of checks and balances for voters during the Presidential election.

5 thoughts on “The Electoral College & The Federalist Papers

  1. The Electoral College does NOT serve as a successful method of checks and balances for voters during the Presidential election.

    the Electoral College does not act as a buffer and damper against popular passions—and never did.

    It is true that the Founding Fathers intended that the Electoral College would provide a buffer against the will of the people. They anticipated that the Electoral College would consist of “wise men” who would deliberate on the choice of the President and “judiciously” select the best candidate for the office. However, the vision of the Founding Fathers was never realized in practice because the Founders did not anticipate the emergence of political parties.

    In the nation’s first two presidential elections (1789 and 1792), the Electoral College did not act as a buffer against popular passions but, instead, acceded to the nationwide consensus that George Washington should be the President.

    As soon as George Washington announced that he would not run for a third term in 1796, political parties emerged. The competition for power was between two opposing groups holding two very different visions about how the country should be governed.

    In 1796, both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist parties nominated their presidential and vice-presidential candidates at a national meeting composed of the party’s members of Congress. As soon as there were national nominees, both parties presented the public with candidates for the position of presidential elector who made it known that they intended to act as willing “rubberstamps” for the nominees of their respective political parties when the Electoral College met. In 1796, all but one of the presidential electors then dutifully voted as expected when the Electoral College met. Moreover, that election established the expectation that presidential electors should “act”—and not “think.”

    The U.S. Supreme Court noted this history in its opinion in the 1892 case of McPherson v. Blacker:
    “Doubtless it was supposed that the electors would exercise a reasonable independence and fair judgment in the selection of the chief executive, but experience soon demonstrated that, whether chosen by the legislatures or by popular suffrage on general ticket or in districts, they were so chosen simply to register the will of the appointing power in respect of a particular candidate. In relation, then, to the independence of the electors, the original expectation may be said to have been frustrated.”

    Thus, as early as the nation’s first competitive presidential election in 1796, the principle was established that the Electoral College would act as a rubberstamp for the “the will of the appointing power.” Since then, the Electoral College has reliably elected the nominees determined by extra-constitutional bodies (namely the nominating meetings of political parties).

    In reality, the Electoral College has never acted as a buffer or damper against popular passions.

    There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector’s own political party. The electors now are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

    If a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state’s dedicated Democratic party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. If a Republican presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state’s dedicated Republican party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate who collects 270 votes from Electoral College voters from among the winning party’s dedicated activists.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws guaranteeing faithful voting by presidential electors (because the states have plenary power over presidential electors).

  2. The electors have always voted the will of the majority in their districts and that’s the way it was setup in the 1st place. It’s the only legal way to elect a president. It kept us from having Al Gore and Hillary Clinton and it’s good enough for me.

  3. Mary Rohweder’s comment does not accurately reflect the role the Electoral College (EC) plays in the process of the election of the US President. Ms. Rohweder does make some points as to the original understanding of the EC’s role, but that is not how that institution has functioned in our history.

    For example, she wrote, “The members of the Electoral College are entrusted with the responsibility of choosing the President”, which is not true. The Electors, selected by the Republican or Democratic party are rubber stamps, therefore her suggestion that they are removed “from bias” is simply not accurate.

    One can see from reading the Federalist Papers No. 68 that there were two basic features of EC. First, the EC was meant to be a deliberative body. Second, the composition of the EC was meant to reflect a certain anti-majoritarian weighting of votes which is a key component of our federalism.

    Regarding the EC as a deliberative body, the idea was to select wise men who would actually exercise their own judgment and discretion to choose the best president. This feature was meant to prevent a demagogue, whom one should presume is ill-suited to be president, from swaying the general public into electing him. The Founders feared the tendency of the majority to be easily swayed by rhetoric and to make bad decisions, so that making the election of the president indirect and placed into the hands of a deliberative body with wise men of experience and discernment was considered the best way of preventing this. As the first commentator above conclusively demonstrated with a great deal of historical evidence, this feature of the EC never actually functioned in practice.

    It is interesting that in 2016 many people felt that Trump was precisely the type of demagogue which the Founders created the EC to prevent from being elected, so that an effort was made, at least for that election cycle, to transform the EC into precisely that deliberative body that it was originally meant to be. As far as I know, this was the first time in US history that such an attempt was made. The idea was to convince Electors committed to voting for Trump to become “faithless electors” and refuse to elect Trump president. It didn’t work as all Trump Electors voted for him, rather a few Electors (I believe five) refused to vote for Clinton (the idea being they would also support an alternative to Trump and Clinton). In reference to state laws requiring Electors to vote in accordance with the outcome of the popular vote (hence forbidding them from exercising any deliberation), these five electors were removed (at the behest of the Democratic Party) so that they could not actually vote. They contested their removal and in its July, 2020 judgment, the US Supreme Court upheld that action, essentially confirming that the EC did not become the deliberative body it was originally intended to be. Accordingly, I believe we can now definitively put to bed the notion of the EC as a deliberative body. It is, has always been, and henceforth will continue to be a rubber stamp.

    Ms. Rohweder goes on to comment on the virtue of the EC preventing the selection of a bad candidate who is popular. “However, the Electoral College rarely opposes the popular vote – but when it does, the opposition is executed in wise conscience based upon the Federalist’s intentions.” As the EC is not a deliberative body, but a rubber stamp, it cannot be said that it “opposes” anything. What actually occurs is that the built in anti-majoritarian features of the EC allow for the candidate who did not win the popular vote to win the election. The “popular vote” is just a number tabulating all the votes, but it determines nothing, as the presidential election is held separately in each state (and the District of Columbia).

    The anti-majoritarian features are quite similar to those in the Congress because each state appoints a number of electors equal to the number of Representatives and Senators it sends to the Congress, ranging from 3 to 55. Article II, Section 2 provides in relevant part as follows: “Each state shall appoint . . . a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress” But just as with each state’s representation in the Congress, the number of Electors assigned to each state by this method is NOT proportioned exactly to population. This is the reason the winner of the “popular vote” may not be the winner of the EC. This divergence has occurred five times in history (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 & 2016). The motive behind adding an anti-majoritarian feature into the EC is, to state it quite simply, federalism. States with smaller populations are given proportionally greater influence so as to not make their population feel they have minimal voice in the running of the country. This feature of the EC remains vibrant. For over a century (between 1888 and 2000) the EC winner was also, coincidentally, the candidate who also won the popular vote, so that most citizens hardly knew about the EC or considered it still relevant. That perception changed dramatically in 2000 and even more so in 2016.

    These days it is constantly urged that we must dispense with the EC precisely because of its anti-majoritarian feature being responsible for Trump being elected president in 2016 despite Clinton gaining nearly 3 million more votes. Seeing as
    amendment of the Constitution requires the approval of at least 38 states, and there are clearly more than 12 states (those with smaller populations, almost all of which presently support the GOP) which benefit from the EC’s anti-majoritarian feature, it seems absolutely foreclosed that the US Constitution could be amended either to abolish the EC or to reform it to remove its anti-majoritarian feature.

    Interestingly enough, the bad candidate in 2016 is the one who DID NOT win the popular vote, yet the EC’s anti-majoritarian features nonetheless gave that candidate the win, and the effort to refashion the EC into a deliberative body failed to prevent that.

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