J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Green States

I’m no fan of the Electoral College. It never decided elections as the Constitution’s writers had hoped, and four times so far has stood in the way of the executive branch “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

One of the Electoral College’s few advantages is that it makes mapping out presidential votes prettier. 270toWin.com offers maps of the Elector breakdowns in every U.S. presidential election going back to 1789. In that year, George Washington (Federalist, shown in green) swept all eleven states that had ratified the Constitution in time to participate. In 1792, the whole country went green.

Then came the stark geographic divides of the John AdamsThomas Jefferson contests, with Democratic-Republican blue appearing on the map and incrementally sweeping up the country until 1820. The website starts using a darker Democratic blue, closer to what the television networks have used lately, at the time of Andrew Jackson’s win in 1828. Whigs are purple.

Wikipedia has its own series of Electoral College maps, taken from the government’s National Atlas of the United States. It’s more accurate in terms of the land that each state claimed at the time of each election, but the colors just aren’t as pretty.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish for the pointer.)


Vern said...

Who's idea was the Electoral College? Was it discussed much? I can see the need to balance population against states rights of course, but with many ideas there were usually counter proposals and debate too. Any pointers?

J. L. Bell said...

There’s little documentation for how the Constitutional Convention of 1787 decided on an Electoral College (a term that didn’t arise until decades later, by the way).

To start with, that convention was semi-secret, and its members were discouraged from letting any news of their deliberations get out to the public. This article by Richard E. Berg-Andersson offers some historical detail on what delegates proposed for a “national executive.”

But, as that article says, the Electoral College described in the original Constitution came out of a committee, and one effect/purpose of committees back then was to take discussions out of the public record. Other committees with wonderful names like the Committee on Detail and the Committee on Unfinished Portions tried to fill in gaps.

That means we know that various delegates—James Wilson, Elbridge Gerry, and others—put forward ideas that influenced the result. But the Electoral College as enacted was a compromise among various ideas over several weeks.

Those delegates apparently convinced themselves that they wouldn’t fall into parties and factions. But they did, and in fact the American election system encourages voters and politicians to coalesce into two major parties. That made the original design of the Electoral College unworkable.