Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote last month, but Donald Trump was officially elected president on Monday by the only voters that mattered – the 538 electors who comprise the “Electoral College.”
But what is the Electoral College, and why does it exist?
It was a novel idea devised in 1787 by the framers of the U.S. Constitution – who wanted the national government to be a “mixed” government, with elements of aristocracy and monarchy as well as democracy (albeit without hereditary nobility). The idea was that different offices would be filled in different ways: members of the House of Representatives would be elected by the people directly, but Supreme Court justices would be appointed by the President with Senate approval, and members of the Senate would be appointed by state legislatures. (We elect our Senators directly now, but that wasn’t the case until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.)
But how was the Presidency to be filled? House members were directly elected, so that method was out; Senators were appointed by the states, so that method was out too. The framers could have had Congress select the president – but that would have made the executive subservient to the legislature, and the Constitution hinges on the three branches of government all being independent and equal. So the framers devised a new method: rather than electing the President directly, states would choose a set of “electors” who would vote on behalf of their state. (You’re not allowed to be an elector if you’re a member of Congress or if you hold a federal “Office of Trust or Profit.” The intent was for the electors to have no personal stake in the outcome: if they didn’t have a private interest, they’d be more likely to act in the public interest.)
The Electoral College wasn’t a particularly controversial provision when it was first proposed – in fact Alexander Hamilton, defending it in Federalist 68, said the Electoral College was “almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure.” But with the rise of political parties in the 1790s, the Electoral College quickly transformed: rather than Hamilton’s vision of disinterested electors carefully weighing the pros and cons and deciding accordingly, electors were partisans who voted for the candidate of whichever party controlled their state.
And as Americans came to embrace democracy more fully in the 19th century, the idea of “independent” electors went by the wayside as well. Rather than “trustees” chosen by the people to make their own best judgments, we came to think of electors as “delegates,” who are supposed to leave their own opinions at the door and vote for whichever candidate the people favor. (How fully have we embraced the “delegate” model? In most states, including North Carolina, the electors’ names don’t even appear on the ballot – only the names of the presidential candidates do. The electors’ actual identities no longer matter; they’re only meant to rubber-stamp the people’s vote.)
Electors who buck the people’s voice and vote their own way are now known as “faithless electors.” The very idea of a “faithless elector” wouldn’t have made sense in Hamilton’s day, but to be a “faithless elector” today is considered a breach of the people’s trust. (Many states even have laws forbidding electors to vote their own way. And those laws probably aren’t even necessary: Americans have embraced the “delegate” model so completely that even the electors themselves see that as their proper role. There were a handful of “faithless electors” this year, but prior to 2016, the last time there had been more than one “faithless elector” in a single election was in 1912 – when eight Republican electors cast their vice-presidential votes for a different candidate, because the party’s official candidate had died.)
WCHL’s Aaron Keck discussed the Electoral College, its history, and its current role on Monday with Hillsborough town historian Scott Washington.