Stanford historian discusses the Electoral College and its origins
Understanding what Congress was doing the day the Capitol was attacked by an angry mob on Jan. 6, 2021, is an opportunity to think about the purpose of the Electoral College – the “peculiar and much-criticized” method the United States uses to select its president, says Stanford historian Jonathan Geinapp.
The Electoral College is in the spotlight again: It was one of the issues discussed at Wednesday’s Jan. 6 hearings when lawmakers examined the demands former President Donald Trump put on former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to reject certifying the Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election. And right before the Jan. 6 committee looked at how such a maneuver would be unconstitutional, a group of bipartisan lawmakers, concerned about future attempts to illegally overturn elections through this process, discussed a framework to reform the Electoral College Act and explicitly state what the vice president’s role is, among other provisions.
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So, what is the Electoral College and what role does it play in determining the outcome of U.S. presidential elections? Why was the formal process targeted by Trump and his supporters?
These were questions Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp discussed with Stanford News as part of its coverage of History of 2021, a class that provided a historical perspective on important issues of the day – including why on Jan. 6, 2021, a violent mob stormed Capitol Hill in an attempt to disrupt the joint session of Congress that had assembled to complete counting votes to certify then-President-elect Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.
“This final step is usually not very dramatic – a mere formality – but of course that was not the case this past year,” Gienapp said, adding: “Understanding what Congress was even doing on Jan. 6 before the Capitol was besieged invites us to ponder the Electoral College – the peculiar and much-criticized mechanism by which the United States chooses its president.”
The answers below are excerpts from the previous coverage of Gienapp’s lecture.
Why did the United States devise a system like the Electoral College, considering no other modern democracy uses a system like this one?
The answers to this question can be surprising since the history of the Electoral College is so often clouded by myths.
This is especially true of the institution’s origins. Why did the Constitution’s authors choose this particular system for electing the president? The most important thing to appreciate is that they chose the Electoral College not because it was the most desirable option, but because it was the least undesirable. The leading alternatives – legislative selection by Congress or a national popular vote – were met with powerful objections. If Congress elected the president, it was feared that the latter would become the puppet of the former, nullifying any hope of executive independence. When it came to a national popular vote, meanwhile, there were worries that, at a time when information moved slowly, especially across such a large nation, voters would be familiar only with the candidates from their home states and thus tend to choose them. There were also grave concerns that the people would be seduced by demagogues. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention chose the Electoral College less because of its virtues than because of its competitors’ perceived shortcomings.
What have been some previous attempts to reform the Electoral College and why did they fail?
The Electoral College has always been an oddity. Since it was first used, it has been criticized. For most of the 20th century, there was bipartisan support to reform it. But, more recently, reform has become a partisan issue.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a high watermark for Electoral College reform. A constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote was approved by the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin but was subsequently blocked by Southerners in the Senate. This opposition was rooted in race. For decades, white Southerners had systematically disenfranchised African Americans, yet because electoral votes were apportioned based on population, not total voters, Southern states did not sacrifice any political power. Had the Electoral College been replaced by a national popular vote, however, the Southern states would have lost the political power they had come to enjoy.
This failed attempt to abolish the Electoral College – only the most prominent of many stretching over two centuries – illustrates a vital point. The Electoral College remains with us today for one simple reason: because the U.S. Constitution is so difficult to amend.
It is important to understand the origins of the Electoral College in light of the ongoing debate over whether to reform it. More often than not, defenders of the Electoral College rely on inaccurate history, falsely claiming that it was designed to work as it does today. Democracy is predicated on public debate, and that debate should ultimately turn on the merits of the question, not historical myths.
One of the criticisms of the Electoral College process centers around the divergence that can occur between winning the Electoral College and the national, popular vote. Can you explain this dynamic a little further?
What actually causes the problems that we’re seeing today that can lead to a difference in who wins the Electoral College and who wins the national popular vote is nothing mandated by the Constitution, but instead the choices that almost all the states have made to distribute their electors based on a winner take all model. Whoever wins the most votes in Florida gets 100% of the electoral votes in Florida, the same as California, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan. The only two states that don’t do this are Maine and Nebraska. None of this is required. The states began doing this early in the Electoral College’s history because there was a recognition, which makes perfect sense from a political standpoint, that if some states are doing it, every other state needs to do it – otherwise, they’re going to punish themselves. What is really important to know is that the distinctive feature of the Electoral College that causes the most problems in people’s eyes is actually the one thing that is not required. That is just a matter of state law, and any state legislature could change it at any time to any system they prefer.
Jonathan Gienapp is an assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences. His scholarship focuses on the constitutional, political, and legal history of the early United States. His book, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Harvard University Press, Belknap, 2018), rethinks the conventional story of American constitutional creation by exploring how and why founding-era Americans’ understanding of their Constitution transformed in the earliest years of the document’s existence.