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Love It or Hate It, Here’s How the Electoral College Came to Be

November 9, 2020by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune
Love It or Hate It, Here’s How the Electoral College Came to Be

CHICAGO — As they do every four years, pundits and newscasters again are explaining why we choose a president in the peculiar way we do. By now, our customary amnesia has set in.

Millions of Americans voted for president on Nov. 3, but it is the 538 electors in the 50 states and the District of Columbia who will decide the race when they cast their ballots on Dec. 14. The contemporary mantra “one man, one vote” doesn’t apply. Here is why.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was limited sympathy among the Founders for allowing the average citizen to vote for president.

George Mason, a Virginia delegate, considered a president elected by popular vote to be a recipe for disaster. He believed “it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief magistrate to the people as it would to refer a trial of colors to a blind man,” according to notes from the convention.

Instead, the delegates created what came to be called the Electoral College — a college without students, faculty or a campus. A group of elites, it meets only once, in discrete groups, and then vanishes.

But Mason didn’t like that electoral approach either, calling the Electoral College “a mere deception.” Decades later, Thomas Jefferson would refer to it as “the most dangerous blot in our constitution system, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit, and give us a pope and antipope.”

Jefferson’s reaction reflected his own experience with it. In the drawn-out election of 1800, with no candidate receiving a majority in the Electoral College, the decision fell to the House of Representatives, where after numerous roll calls, Jefferson won out over running mate Aaron Burr.

There was a similar outcry over the Electoral College after the election of 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Donald Trump won the electors’ votes and the White House.

But let’s give those who wrote the Constitution a chance to explain their decision-making.

The Chicago Tribune’s archives don’t go back that far, but James Madison, a Virginia delegate, knew he was witnessing history in the making and recorded it in detail.

“I chose a seat in front of the presiding member, with the other members on my right and left hand,” Madison recalled. “In this favorable position for hearing all that passed I noted … what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members.”

Thanks to Madison’s journal, readers can share the sense of urgency delegates brought to the Statehouse in Philadelphia.

The economy was in free fall. In response to a debt crisis, state governments had printed money by the basketful, thereby debasing the currency. Massachusetts’ debtors were in armed rebellion. The Articles of Confederation were failing to provide the central governance our fledgling nation needed to survive.

On the fifth day of the convention, delegate Edmund Randolph, Virginia’s governor, stepped forth to propose solutions that included a strong national government. “He … commented on the difficulty of the crisis and the necessity of preventing the fulfillment of the prophecies of the American downfall,” Madison noted.

Subsequent sessions saw endless wrangling over dealing with the crisis. Amid the squabbling, one thing was clear: The British and the Spanish were poised to pick up the pieces should the American experiment fail.

As our nation was then constituted, the office of president didn’t exist. The convention had to create it.

As Great Britain’s House of Commons determines the prime minister, some wondered: Why not have our House of Representatives choose the president?

A Pennsylvania delegate was adamant that, if Congress were to have any role, it shouldn’t be the House, the larger branch.

The delegate, Gouverneur Morris, “said the Senate was preferred because fewer could then, say to the President, ‘You owe your appointment to us,'” Madison noted.

Luther Martin of Maryland wanted a minimalist central government: Its function should be to preserve the state governments, not to govern anyone directly.

“This was the substance of a speech which was continued more than three hours,” Madison wrote. “He was too much exhausted, he said, to finish his remarks and reminded the house that he should tomorrow resume them.”

It’s hardly surprising that the convention decided to postpone a decision on the presidency until other questions were resolved.

On the contentious issue of counting slaves, for example, Southern delegates insisted they be included in the census that would determine how many seats a state would have in the House of Representatives. But some Northerners thought slavery morally repugnant.

“He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution,” Madison reported Morris saying.

“Religion and humanity” didn’t factor into this question, said John Rutledge of South Carolina.

Rutledge and other Southern delegates threatened to leave the convention, but both sides gave up ground. The South agreed that a smaller fraction of its slaves would count. The North agreed to not interfere with the slave trade for the immediate future. Race relations are still haunted by this compromise.

The convention handed off the presidency issue to a committee on unfinished business, which made its recommendations early in September, the final month of the convention.

“This subject has greatly divided the House, and will also divide the people out of doors. It is in truth the most difficult of all on which we have had to decide,” said James Wilson of Pennsylvania.

He liked the idea of electors meeting in the capitals of their states, a proposal floated months earlier.

If electors get to decide who becomes president, they should all meet together, Richard Spaight of North Carolina said. Spaight proposed “that the electors meet at the seat of the general government.”

Morris took Wilson’s side, according to Madison’s notes: “As the electors would vote at the same time and throughout the U.S. at so great a distance from each other, the great evil cabal was avoided. It would be impossible, also, to corrupt them.”

The convention agreed, and thus it came to pass that our presidents ultimately are chosen by an Electoral College whose members meet in their respective state capitals to vote. The transitory nature of the college insulates it from the horse-trading endemic to legislative bodies.

Each state then sends its results to the Senate president. If the results are inconclusive, the House of Representatives is on hand to conduct a vote before the system can be gamed.

Each state’s number of electors is equal to the total of its senators and representatives. The Constitutional Convention left the manner of the electors’ selection up to the states.

Shortly after the U.S. Constitution was adopted, the French abolished their monarchy. Since then, France has had a republic, an empire, a restored monarchy, a second republic, a second empire and three more republics.

Our Constitution, with its much-maligned Electoral College, is still with us.

Benjamin Franklin had a hunch about that on Sept. 17, 1787, when the Constitution was signed. He casually pointed to a painting of the sun on the back of the chair George Washington sat in while presiding over the convention.

“I have said he, often and often in the course of this session … looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting,” Madison wrote, referring to Franklin’s remarks.

“But now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

___

(c)2020 Chicago Tribune

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