The Corrupt Bargain (Review Essay)

Historians in the News
tags: Electoral College, presidential history, 2020 Election

very​ four years Americans wake up to the fact that a president can be elected despite receiving fewer votes than another candidate. Until 2000 the electorate couldn’t be blamed for being unaware of this possibility, because it hadn’t happened since 1888. But twenty years ago George W. Bush squeaked into office with a five vote majority in the electoral college even though Al Gore outpolled him by half a million votes. Then in 2016 Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump but still lost by a substantial margin – 304 to 227 – among the electors. Ask a man or woman in the street why this system of electing a president was adopted and how it works and you will almost certainly draw a blank. It’s complicated, but the main point to bear in mind is that the president is elected indirectly. To be sure, on election day Americans think they’re casting a ballot for their preferred candidate. But, technically, what they’re doing is voting for electors pledged to support that candidate. The electors vote a month or so later and in almost all cases cast their ballots for the candidate who carried their state. No matter who won the national popular vote, they have the final say.

The United States prides itself on providing a global model of democratic government. But of the nearly two hundred sovereign states that make up the United Nations it is difficult to think of a single one that elects its chief executive as Americans do. Even countries with constitutions explicitly modelled on the US one have not thought the electoral college worthy of emulation. Liberia, established as a settlement for manumitted slaves, closely followed the American example, but opted for direct election of the president ‘by the people’. The post-World War Two constitutions of West Germany and Japan, their drafting strongly influenced by the American occupying authorities, did not adopt the system. The electoral college (an odd name for an institution whose members only assemble once every four years, in the fifty state capitals) certainly makes the US exceptional.

How the president should be elected was one of the most divisive issues to confront the constitutional convention of 1787. The delegates agreed that the new nation must be a republic, which ruled out a hereditary head of state. Some favoured selection by the legislature, the method used in parliamentary systems, but others feared this would make the president dependent on Congress. The most democratic option, of course, was election by the people (or at least the minority of the population eligible to vote in each state, generally white men with property), but most of the framers believed that unrestrained democracy was as dangerous as tyranny. Placing prominent men of ‘discernment’ between the electorate and the final outcome, Alexander Hamilton insisted, would hold popular passions in check and prevent a demagogue, perhaps beholden to a foreign government, rising to power. James Madison had a more self-interested objection to popular election. The political power of the South, where slaves made up 40 per cent or more of the population, had hugely increased, thanks to a clause adding three-fifths of the slave population to the number of free inhabitants when allocating on the basis of population the seats given to each state in the House of Representatives. Since the slave population would have no impact on the outcome, warned Madison, a Virginia slaveowner, a popular vote for president would deprive the South of ‘influence in the election on the score of the Negroes’.

The electoral college system was adopted shortly before the convention’s deliberations ended, and has remained almost unchanged ever since.

Read entire article at London Review of Books

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