Instead, as we know, Gore won the popular vote but, through a combination of unforeseen circumstances, inconsistent counting that ignored voter intention, and Supreme Court reversals, lost the Electoral College.
Having considered the opposite possibility a few weeks before, I felt confident that my deep dismay at that outcome wasn’t just because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were in charge of the executive branch but because they were clearly not, as the Declaration of Independence says, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It’s not clear why the Constitutional Convention came up with the Electoral College. The upper-class men gathered there certainly didn’t trust democracy—indeed, they convened in response to popular uprisings like the Shays’ rebellion. They preferred representational democracy in which the people’s preferences were filtered through a series of elected deliberative bodies made up mostly of upper-class men like themselves.
The Convention was also starting from a system with all states enjoying equal (if disproportionate) representation and moving to one with some representation based on population. The Electoral College was the result of a larger compromise. The Constitution assigned each state the same number of Electors as it had Representatives and Senators together, and left the manner of choosing those Electors up to the state. Members of the Convention probably felt that system would adequately reflect “the consent of the governed.”
The resulting system had none of the advantages of representational democracy, however. Electors from different states are not supposed to meet together, so there can be no deliberations or compromises. Some analysts suggest that the Convention expected the Electoral College to produce either strong consensus candidates (e.g., George Washington) or a small number of candidates for the U.S. Congress—the elite of the elite—to choose from.
The Convention didn’t anticipate the rise of political parties even though they had existed in Britain for decades and people were already applying the idea of “the court party” and “country party” to state legislatures. Within ten years, states dominated by one party or with favorite sons in the presidential race were assigning all their Electoral College votes to one candidate regardless of the proportion of votes cast in the state. At that point political leaders had clearly abandoned any notion of the Electoral College representing voters—it was all about partisan advantage.
The problems with this system became apparent as soon as Washington retired. The 1796 election meant President John Adams had his rival Thomas Jefferson as Vice President. The 1800 election had a deadlock in Congress between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution (official copy shown above) was an attempt to fix the Electoral College. The Founding generation knew they hadn’t gotten that part of the Constitution right.
But that 1804 change didn’t fix all the problems. In 1825, 1877, 1889, and 2001 a President took office even though more Americans had voted for another candidate. (Is it just coincidence that the popular winners kept out of power were all Democrats?) Sometimes the administration that took power without popular support instituted terrible policies. At other times the damage looks small, but those outcomes still undercut the foundation of the U.S. of A. as either democratic or republican (whatever difference people like to assign to those terms). Of all the countries that have taken the U.S. as a model, not one has tried to replicate the Electoral College.
This year pre-election surveys raised the possibility of another split between Americans’ actual vote and the Electoral College. For a while last month some surveys showed Mitt Romney with a lead in national polls but President Barack Obama solidly ahead in most swing states and thus in Electoral College projections. For the first time the Republican Party seriously faces the prospect of winning a popular mandate but not taking office. That split outcome seems less likely as I write, but I hope the fear might galvanize Republicans into helping to reform our flawed system.
The National Popular Vote initiative offers a simple, constitutional way for states to restore “the consent of the governed” to our Presidential elections. Even better would be a new system with run-offs ensuring that the candidate who takes office has received a majority of Americans’ votes. There’s simply no justification for the Electoral College.