Electoral College

AuthorWard E. Y. Elliott

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The Electoral College was hurriedly improvised by the Framers to placate all factions, provide a mechanism for electing GEORGE WASHINGTON, and leave hard questions for the states to resolve after Washington's retirement. Yet it turned out, unexpectedly, to be the forming and sustaining mold of the American party system.

At conception, the College was partly democratic and responsive to the large states, partly aristocratic and answerable to small states. It was apportioned mostly by population, with a delegate for each congressman and senator, and a state could select its delegates in any way it pleased. The Framers seem to have expected that, after Washington, the delegates?acting deliberatively or as agents of state legislatures?would normally fail to muster a majority for one candidate, and that most elections would be settled in the House of Representatives, with one vote per state.

This happened only in 1824, when the House chose JOHN QUINCY ADAMS over ANDREW JACKSON, the frontrunner in popular and electoral votes. In 1800 the House also elected THOMAS JEFFERSON, who tied with his running mate AARON BURR in the Electoral College. This deadlock led to the adoption of the TWELFTH AMENDMENT, which separated the votes for President and vice-president and gave the College its essential modern written constitutional constraints.

In the same decades, the College acquired two powerful unwritten constraints: party control and unit vote. Party control originated in congressional nominating caucuses in 1796 and shifted to state and national nominating conventions during the 1830s. It ended the notion of unbound, deliberative delegates seeking "continental"

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leadership. POLITICAL PARTIES, not delegates, did the deliberation.

The unit vote, chosen by all but one state by 1836, delivered each state's delegation as a unit to the winner of its popular vote. Unit voting already prevailed in the House and in most state elections, but the Electoral College gave it its widest leverage. It is kind to winners, hard on second parties, and almost prohibitive of third parties. It forces competition for shiftable votes, and it rewards inclusive, center-seeking, accommodational parties (and groups) while discouraging narrow, ideological, exclusive ones. Many scholars believe that the American two-party system has its roots in the unit vote and its taproot in the Electoral College.

The College has prompted two complaints...

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