This year’s talk is “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” by Alex Keyssar of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Every four years, millions of Americans find themselves asking why they choose their presidents through the peculiar mechanism called the Electoral College—an arcane institution that narrows election campaigns to swing states and can permit the loser of the popular vote to become president. It has had critics since the early 19th century. Over the years, Congress has considered hundreds of constitutional amendments aimed at transforming the system.Harvard University Press has just published Keyssar’s book of the same title.
“Publius” essay number 58, written by Alexander Hamilton, laid out the Federalist case for Electors, but it wasn’t written to refute any particular argument. Hamilton began:
The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. . . .However, within just a few years many states were requiring Electors not to deploy their “information and discernment” but to vote for whichever candidate had won in those states. And then the Twelfth Amendment ensured that the Electors wouldn’t all assemble for “deliberation”; each group was to meet in their own state. The original system never worked as the Framers hoped.
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
This event will start with a reception at 5:30 P.M., and Prof. Keyssar will speak at 6:30. It is free to M.H.S. Fellows and Members, $20 for others. Register here.