David Stewart, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution , and other works on American history.
The presidential elector system is an anachronistic vestige of aristocratic attitudes, both undemocratic and easily manipulated. Its survival until 2013 reflects the power of inertia and founder worship. We should change it.
Recent legislative proposals in Virginia and Pennsylvania remind us that the elector system defeats fundamental principles of democracy. Republicans in both states have proposed abandoning the winner-take-all format for choosing electors, where all of the state's electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. Instead, they want to award electors according to vote totals in individual congressional districts. This would give Republican presidential candidates at least some electors in each state, which have both gone Democratic in recent elections.
Many have denounced the proposals as crass attempts to game election rules for partisan gain, yet they are perfectly consistent with the Constitution and our history.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, most delegates opposed popular election of the president. They were, after all, eighteenth-century patricians who mistrusted common people. Their views were based on premises that no longer apply. In 1787, many Americans could not read and lived isolated, rural lives with little access to news reports. Because most people knew little about public events or leaders from distant states, the convention delegates reasoned, they would not make a wise choice between presidential candidates. According to George Mason of Virginia, popular elections were the equivalent of asking a blind man to choose between colors.
Accordingly, the delegates contrived a system where each state would choose presidential electors—presumably men of the better sort—who would gather to choose the best man for president. To indulge parochial political cultures in different parts of the country, each state would choose its electors in whatever fashion it wished. Thus, under Article II, Section 1, state legislatures have unfettered discretion to decide how to choose electors. They can pick the electors themselves, assign them according to the popular vote in each congressional district, or flip a coin.
In early elections, some states had their legislatures choose electors; South Carolina did so until 1868. Other states allowed the people to vote, assigning electors to a candidate on a winner-take-all basis. Still others awarded electors based on the popular vote in each congressional district, or blended different features.
Early politicians eagerly manipulated the system. Take, for example, the election of 1800. A year before the voting began, Virginia Republicans adopted the winner-take-all system to ensure that all of its electors supported local boy Thomas Jefferson. In Massachusetts, Federalists mimicked the move to prevent Jefferson from winkling any of that state's electoral votes away from their favorite son, John Adams.
Then Maryland Federalists tried to replace that state's congressional-district system, which was likely to split votes between Adams and Jefferson, with choice by the state legislature, where the Federalists might do better. In bruising local elections, Republicans won enough legislative seats to short-circuit the scheme.
Forty-eight states now follow the winner-take-all model. Maine and Nebraska assign most of their electors according to the popular vote in each congressional district, with two electors awarded based on the statewide vote. Yet every state remains free to follow the path most likely to favor the presidential candidate of that state's dominant party. The system virtually begs to be gamed.