The Electoral College Has Been Divisive Since Day One

It has always had the potential for chaos—one that hasn’t been tapped…yet

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Electoral Map
The electoral map in 2016, that is, assuming there are no faithless electors 270toWin

The Electoral College polarized Americans from its inception. Created by the framers of the Constitution during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the College was put forth as a way to give citizens the opportunity to vote in presidential elections, with the added safeguard of a group of knowledgeable electors with final say on who would ultimately lead the country, another limit on the burgeoning nation’s democratic ideals.

The story of the Electoral College is also one of slavery—an institution central to the founding of American democracy. The bulk of the new nation’s citizenry resided in cities like Philadelphia and Boston in the North, leaving the South sparsely populated by farmers, plantation owners, other landholders, and, of course, enslaved laborers. This disparity in the population distribution became a core element of the legislative branch, and in turn, the Electoral College.

"[Southerners] wanted slaves to count the same as anyone else, and some northerners thought slaves shouldn’t be counted at all because they were treated as property rather than as people," says author Michael Klarman, a professor at Harvard Law School. In his recently released book, The Framers’ Coup, Klarman discusses how each framer’s interests came into play while creating the document that would one day rule the country.

“One of two biggest divisions at the Philadelphia convention was over how slaves would count in purposes of apportioning the House of Representatives," he explains. The issue vexed and divided the founders, presenting what James Madison, a slave owner, called a “difficulty…of a serious nature."

At the time, a full 40 percent of the South’s population was enslaved, and the compromise famously reached by the founding fathers determined that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person when it came to dividing the nation into equal congressional districts. The Electoral College, in turn, provided each state with an allotment of electors equivalent to its Congressional delegation (two senators plus its number of representatives).

Robert W. Bennett, author of Taming the Electoral College and a law professor at Northwestern University, notes that neither women nor white men without property could vote at the time, either—meaning that slavery was not the only factor that made the allocation of the Electoral College out of sync with reality.  “A relatively small number of people actually had the right to vote,” he says.

As the voting public has evolved and become more knowledgeable, the outcry against the Electoral College has never abated. According to the National Archives, the past 200 years have brought more than 700 proposed Constitutional amendments to either “reform or eliminate” the Electoral College. This month, Senator Barbara Boxer of California authored a bill that would abolish the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote.

Even if the Electoral College remains for another 250 years, it will still have to contend with another vestige of its creation—the issue of “faithless electors” who decide to vote against their party’s chosen candidate. Over the years, there have been 157 faithless electors, and while some states require that electors stay true to their state's electoral choice, often requiring a formal pledge, 21 don’t require that kind of loyalty at all.  

According to the Archives, 99 percent of electors have kept their pledge and voted for their chosen candidate. But it does happen. The first case of a faithless elector was in 1796, when Samuel Miles of Pennsylvania, for reasons unclear, switched his vote from Federalist John Adams to Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Over the first century of the College, faithless electors often abstained or changed their votes so out of political spite, not high-minded idealism, and have never changed the result of an election. The 1872 election presented a unique scenario in which the losing candidate, Democrat Horace Greeley, died unexpectedly in the period between the election and the Electoral College vote. Their votes ended up being split between three other Democratic candidates, with 19 abstentions, none of which changed the election's outcome—a landslide win by Ulysses S. Grant.

In history books, however, the election is mostly listed as Grant with 286 electoral votes and Greeley as 0—another reminder of the ineffectiveness of faithless electors. Two more recent examples came in 1988 and 2000. In the former, Democrat elector Margaret Leach acted faithlessly as a way to protest the silliness of the process. In the latter, elector Barbara Lett-Simmons of the District of Columbia abstained from voting to highlight the District’s lack of congressional representation. Sitting Vice President Al Gore still lost to Governor George W. Bush, but the total electoral vote added up to 537 votes, one short of the total. D.C. still does not have Congressional representation.

This year, at least one elector has pledged not to cast a vote consistent with his state’s election results. On December 5, Christopher Suprun, a Republican elector from Texas, announced in The New York Times that he intends to cast his electoral vote for Ohio Governor John Kasich, who dropped his presidential bid in May, instead of Donald Trump.

Even though the franchise was long ago extended beyond white, male landowners, and the way Americans vote has changed radically, the Electoral College remains, a vestige of the country's slave-owning past and anti-populist founding. Barring some unprecedented mass of electors following Suprun's lead and acting faithlessly next month, the college will select Trump as the 45th President of the United States, and the fight to reform or banish the College will begin anew.

Editor's Note, December 7, 2016: This story was updated to include the news about elector Christopher Suprun.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.