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Securing democracy : why we have an electoral college /
edited by Gary L. Gregg II ; with an introduction by Mitch McConnell.
Wilmington, Del. : ISI Books, 2001.
xxvi, 171 p. ; 22 cm.
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added author
Wilmington, Del. : ISI Books, 2001.
contents note
Introduction / Mitch McConnell -- The origins and meaning of the electoral college / Gary L. Gregg II -- The development and democratization of the electoral college / Andrew E. Busch -- Federalism, the states and the electoral college / James R. Stoner Jr. -- Moderating the political impulse / Paul A. Rahe -- The electoral college and the future of the American political parties / Michael Barone -- The electoral college and the uniqueness of America / Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- Creating constitutional majorities : the electoral college after 2000 / Michael M. Uhlmann -- Outputs : the electoral college produces presidents / Walter Berns.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [145]-155) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Origins and Meaning of

the Electoral College

Gary L. Gregg II

Its critics and supporters both have it right. The Electoral College does not work as it was intended to work by the Framers of our Constitution. But if it does not function as intended, then how was it intended to function?

    This is a serious question with important implications for our understanding of American democracy and presidential elections. But despite its importance, scholars and pundits have given little attention to this basic concern. Most have either dismissed the question--as they dismiss the Electoral College itself--as archaic and uninteresting, or they have been satisfied to accept the prevailing notion about its origins without evidence or serious scrutiny. Both tendencies are unfortunate and lead to a very thin appreciation for the system and its founding principles.

    The origins of the Electoral College are more obscure than they should be, not only because most scholars and political activists have found the subject uninteresting, but also because many have accepted an interpretation that says the Framers of the Constitution understood that the Electoral College would work to elect General Washington to be the first president but then would not likely work again. The College was, according to this understanding, a type of political mirage meant to conceal the true nature of presidential selection. That is, after Washington's election, the Electoral College would deadlock on a regular basis and throw the real selection of the president into the House of Representatives.

    Despite a considerable lack of evidence, this "designed to fail" interpretation of the origins of the Electoral College has crept through the scholarly literature, with author after author accepting it without question. It has also found its way into American government textbooks, in which the Electoral College is typically introduced to students not only as an institution that is not useful for our own time, but also as one that was never even intended to work at all. It's no wonder that our commentators and our citizenry have found it easy to dismiss our constitutional mechanism for selecting presidents.

The Constitutional Convention

The mode of selecting the chief executive was one of the more difficult problems that occupied the minds of the men assembled during the hot summer of 1787. The question was voted on and assumed to be closed a number of times during the Convention, only to rise again and again to stir up the proceedings. The question of how to elect the executive was central to the work of the Founders, since executive power itself presented a conundrum for the age of democracy and kingship.

    The members of the Constitutional Convention strove to achieve a delicate tension in the mode to be used to choose the executive officer. They did not have the luxury of taking a simple course or hubristically adhering to one ideological principle at the exclusion of the lessons of history and other important values. As was the case with the entire constitutional order they designed, they had to create a balanced approach that was at once innovative in its application and prescriptive in its design.

    Three basic (and in many ways competing) values animated the Convention with respect to the mode of selecting our chief executive. First, the system would need to be based upon the sound principles of the revolution. That is, it would need to find its legitimacy in the revolution's basic recognition that the people and their communities are ultimately the source of power. It would have to be republican. Second, the system would have to be so structured as to allow the president to be sufficiently independent from other entities; only then could he act his part with vigor and resolve. Third, the method of selection would need to be designed so as to encourage the choice of a person with the proper character for the high executive office. These three core values--republicanism, independence, and virtue--guided the design of the Electoral College. With this in mind, we can better understand its genius.

    Various specific modes of electing the president were proposed during the Constitutional Convention, most attempting to achieve some balance between the three oft-competing goals. Though there were numerous specific manifestations of these programs, each can be placed into one of three general categories. Either they provided for popular election, election by the national legislature (or a part thereof), or election by some version of a specially chosen body of electors or other non-national figures (such as state governors). Given that our task is to come to grips with the origins of the Electoral College method of selection, it is useful to briefly explore the alternatives that developed.

The Case for Popular Election

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans would support the replacement of the Electoral College with a direct popular election for president. In 1969 such a proposal even passed the House of Representatives, amply demonstrating that simple majoritarianism will always have an allure in a political system that values popular sovereignty and voting as highly as ours does. Simple, clear, easily understood, and comporting with our self-understanding as a democracy, majoritarianism has been the siren call of progressive historians for decades. But it has also appealed to many others throughout American history.

    Was such an idea completely alien to the Founders? Were the men of Philadelphia elitists with an abiding fear of the people, as many historians have charged? The answer is complex, as is the political system they created. Yes, the Founders considered and debated the direct popular election of the president. And no, such a system did not gain much support at the Convention. But a careful look at the debates at the Convention and in subsequent ratifying conventions belies the notion that the Founders were simply undemocratic and distrustful of popular rule.

    Direct popular election for president was the subject of two explicit votes by the Convention; on both occasions it was overwhelmingly defeated. On July 17, Gouverneur Morris made a motion to have the president elected by the people, but only Morris's own delegates from Pennsylvania voted in its favor. And again, on August 24, a popular election proposal was moved by Maryland's Daniel Carroll. It was defeated without any discussion at all, and with but two states supporting the idea.

    The two most regular and articulate members to speak on behalf of popular election were Morris and his fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson. Wilson first apprehensively raised the possibility on June 1, though he openly feared that "it might appear chimerical." Indeed, no one even seems to have felt it necessary to immediately respond to his thoughts until he rose for a second time to declare his plan, in response to which George Mason, voicing support but finding such a mode impractical, suggested postponing the discussion until Wilson "might have time to digest it into his own form." Ironically, what Wilson would propose the next day would in actuality be closer to the eventual Electoral College system than a direct popular vote: to have the people choose a representative from their district, who would then serve as one of the immediate electors for president.

    A direct popular election of the president would of course adhere to the necessity that the system be republican. Such a system would also help encourage the president to be more independent and free to act than if he were elected directly by the national legislature, which was one of the most often proposed methods of selection. In fact, each time popular selection was raised as a possibility, it was in reaction to the Convention having entrusted the legislature with such an important power. But would a system of direct election by a national populace result in the selection of a president most fit for office, while also being representative of the genius of the political system itself?

    Here again, the record is complex. Some delegates spoke in favor of direct popular election as likely to result in a good choice. Morris, for instance, said, "If the people should elect, they will never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character"; that is to say, they would choose someone of "continental reputation." Others, such as Virginia's George Mason, were not so confident in the public. What is more, many of the Founders' concerns about direct popular election involved electoral dynamics and political balances more than animus toward the public. A fear of demagoguery, a concern about competing favorite-son candidates in the states, logistical and procedural concerns about a single national election, and a need to adhere to the tensions and balances of the political system they were creating seem to have conspired against a direct election as much as any concern about the public's fitness to choose.

The Case for Legislative Selection

As the vote counting, and recounting, crept forward in Florida after the election of November 7, 2000, fears began to be raised in Washington and across the country that 2000 might just be the year that the "nightmare scenario" would come true. The House of Representatives might be called to choose the president of the United States. The Supreme Court's decision to stop the recounts in select Florida counties saved Congress from having to make such a choice--and saved us all from having to witness the House of Representatives deal with this responsibility. But the Founders themselves had established the system whose back-up mechanism would be that legislative selection almost everyone hoped to avoid.

    As I said earlier, some interpreters have claimed that the system of presidential election outlined in Article II of the Constitution was designed as a type of grand political shell game. On paper it would seem the president would be elected by a select group close to the people in the states, but in reality, the argument goes, it was established to routinely fail and send the actual selection of the president to the House and the selection of the vice president (perhaps) to the Senate. A close look at the Constitutional Convention and the writings of the Founders, however, provides little evidence for this interpretation.

    It is true that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention did vote to have the president selected by the national legislature (or some part thereof) a number of times during the Convention. This would seem to be evidence for those who argue that the House was supposed to have routinely made the presidential choice. But if one attends closely to the context in which such votes were taken, one can expose this argument as false.

    Connecticut's Roger Sherman would support legislative selection in the hopes of "making him [the president] absolutely dependent on that body"; he found independence in the executive to be "the very essence of tyranny." But Sherman is worth quoting precisely because he is so unrepresentative of thought represented at the Constitutional Convention. The overwhelming number of the other delegates shared Montesquieu's belief that the concentration of power into any single entity constituted the essence of tyranny. They would agree with James Madison's statement that "If it be a fundamental principle of free Govt. that the Legislative, Executive & Judiciary powers should be separately exercised; it is equally so that they be independently exercised." And he went on, "There is the same & perhaps greater reason why the Executive shd. be independent of the Legislature, than why the Judiciary should: A coalition of the two former powers would be more immediately & certainly dangerous to public liberty."

    This basic commitment to a system of independent and separated powers pervaded the Convention and was one of the most fundamental goals when constructing the executive office. To a number of delegates this concern mitigated against any form of legislative selection. To others, it could be overcome through properly constructing the institution to build a degree of insulation between the president and the legislature.

    Thus, the Convention sought to provide the president with certain institutional safeguards which, it was argued, would protect him from an overbearing legislature. Among the safeguards mentioned and subject to votes within the context of legislative selection were: giving the president a certain and fixed salary that the legislature could neither raise nor diminish; having a special committee of the legislature (perhaps even chosen by lot, as in James Wilson's proposal of July 24) choose the president and then disband; or having the legislature choose the president initially, but having incumbent presidents be elected by some other body so that they would not be beholden to the legislature for re-election.

    The two most serious and regularly occurring proposals, however, were to subject the president to term limits and to make each term lengthy. These proposals often combined into a single six-year term for the president. However, to many, this medicine proved worse than the disease. Gouverneur Morris, for instance, argued that any kind of term limit on the president would encourage him to "make hay while the sun shines," while others spoke of the problems inherent in a lengthy term.

    Support for legislative selection was almost always expressed in combination with one or more of these institutional innovations. And when such safeguards were not present, support for a legislative mode of selection rapidly diminished. As James Wilson would put it starkly, "[It] seems to be the unanimous sense that the Executive should not be appointed by the Legislature, unless he be rendered in-eligible a 2d. time." Following Wilson, James Madison went further:

It is essential then that the appointment of the Executive should either be drawn from some source, or held by some tenure, that will give him a free agency with regard to the Legislature. This could not be if he was to be appointable from time to time by the Legislature. It was not clear that an appointment in the Ist instance [even] with an ineligibility afterwards would not establish an improper connection between the two departments.

    Thus, if one looks closely at the debates during the Constitutional Convention and the votes of the men who drafted the Constitution, one can see quite clearly that there is little evidence for the thesis that the Electoral College was a jerry-rigged system designed to regularly "fail" and send the ultimate decision to Congress. The Founders were too concerned to make the president independent of the legislature to agree to such a scheme of legislative selection, unless the president could be insulated from legislative control. Whenever the Convention demonstrated a commitment to legislative selection, it was always within the context of just such presidential insulation--usually in the form of term limits or a single, lengthy term. Except for the minor element of the legislature not being able to raise or cut a president's salary once he is in office, none of these institutional safeguards were included in the Constitution of 1787.

    To assume that the Electoral College was just a throwaway institution the Framers realized would fail is to argue that the delegates completely abandoned all their concerns expressed throughout the summer concerning legislative tyranny. Such a reading goes against all the evidence.

A Third Way: The Birth of the Electoral College

With both direct popular election and election by the national legislature having proven to be problematic, a number of delegates argued for one or another version of a "third way" that would avoid the problems of the other two. In each of these proposals, specially chosen electors or other elected officials were to choose the president. And various modes were suggested for selecting the electors--from popular election, to selection by the state legislators or executives, to allowing the states to choose the mode of selecting the electors themselves (the latter solution would eventually be incorporated into Article II of the Constitution). Elbridge Gerry even suggested that the state legislators--and on a separate occasion that the state governors--be empowered to directly choose the chief magistrate.

    The electoral compromise position that eventually became part of the ratified Constitution was hammered out by Brearley's "Committee of Eleven," which reported to the Convention on September 4. Before the Committee reported its changes, the plan had been for the president to be chosen by legislative selection and to serve a single, seven-year term. As Roger Sherman noted almost immediately, the plan set forth by the committee would eliminate the ineligibility for re-election that was part of the plan of legislative selection, and it would also ensure the president's independence. After Madison voiced a concern about the voting methods of the contingency elections in Congress, Edmund Randolph and Charles Pinckney asked for a detailed explanation of the change in mode of election. Gouverneur Morris rose to express the Committee's views as well as his own, and Madison's notes of his remarks deserve a full recounting here:

The Ist. was the danger of intrigue & faction if the appointmt. Should be made by the Legislature. 2 the inconveniency of an ineligibility required by that mode in order to lessen its evils. 3 The difficulty of establishing a Court of Impeachments, other than the Senate which would not be so proper for the trial nor the other branch for impeachment of the President, if appointed by the Legislature, 4. No body had appeared to be satisfied with an appointment by the Legislature. 5. Many were anxious even for an immediate choice by the people--6--the indispensable necessity of making the Executive independent of the Legislature.--As the Electors would vote at the same time throughout the U.S. and at so great a distance from each other, the great evil of cabal was avoided.

What we see here in stark relief is Morris's summation of the motivations of the Committee, which hinges upon the undesirability of legislative selection. If they would have retained legislative selection they would have had to keep the re-election ineligibility requirement, which raised considerable problems of its own, such as the negation of the incentive for good behavior that some delegates mentioned would come with mandatory rotation or a limit on terms. Importantly, five of the six elements listed by Morris directly relate to the relationship between the executive and the legislature and the problems with allowing the latter to choose the former.

    Morris's summation, which was not contradicted by any of the other members of the Committee, is significant evidence that the Founders did not intend the national legislature to routinely select the president. In sum, the Electoral College was not some ignoble compromise. It was not designed as some sort of constitutional tissue paper that for a time would cover the fault lines of the Convention only to dissolve away with the passing of Washington from the public stage. It was not, to wit, designed routinely to fail and send the selection of the president into the House of Representatives, as some of the College's critics continue to contend.

The Electoral College and the

Founding Principles of American Government

The Electoral College was to be a method of electing the president that in many ways would closely resemble the constitutional system writ small. The selection of a good man to be president, it was hoped, would work similarly to the way good public policy was supposed to emerge from the political system--that is, through the efforts of the most qualified people working under conditions that would encourage mature discussions. In the case of the political system, the desired end was public policy that would not threaten the system or any one part of it and would further the national good. Likewise, it was hoped that the Electoral College would result in a president with the qualifications and interests necessary to serve the public well. Properly understood, the Electoral College and its origins point to the ideas and values that undergird the entire American constitutional system as these were embedded in the foundations of the Electoral College itself.

Free Government:

Republicanism, Responsibility, and Responsiveness

The Founders were republicans. They were dedicated to a political system that would be based on "the consent of the governed" and that would be representative in form and function. The men that held the power to make decisions for society would be representatives of the people that were somehow accountable to them and would not be likely to threaten either their liberties or those of their freely chosen state and local governments. James Madison would define a "republic" as

[a] government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their office during pleasure for limited periods, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it.... It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified.... [emphasis in original]

    Once we remember that the American Founders were not monarchists or antidemocratic, we can understand that there can be a diversity of electoral types that are legitimate in a representative system of government, and the less likely we may be to assume (as is the trend in our contemporary political culture) that direct democracy is the only legitimate electoral form.

    Of the constitutional system designed to elect the president, Alexander Hamilton would write in Federalist 68, "It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided." The Founders believed it important that the people's best judgment should be felt in the presidential election system. But they were also very concerned with the product of the system. The inputs must be republican and must adhere to solid principles of free government. To the Founders, however, that did not require a one-size-fits-all mass democratic polity. The system the Founders settled upon was infused with "the sense of the people" while adding elements of other values and institutions that combined to produce presidents most likely to serve the common good.


Excerpted from SECURING DEMOCRACY by . Copyright © 2001 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-10-01:
Gregg (Univ. of Louisville; The Presidential Republic) here assembles seven essays by political scholars expressing support for the Electoral College. The essays argue that the current structure of the Electoral College maintains our two-party system, keeps our federal and constitutional procedures intact, and has only failed to produce electoral mandates in four elections since 1804. Essays by Gregg and Andrew Bush (Univ. of Denver) provide a good summary of the origin of the Electoral College and then detail changes made to the procedure by the 12th Amendment and by federal statutes. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's essay offers insight into an earlier attempt to change the voting system in 1979. Contributors Paul A. Rahe (Univ. of Tulsa) and Michael M. Uhlmann (Claremont McKenna Coll.) resort to invective rather than informative language against those wanting to amend or eliminate the Electoral College. Public and academic libraries purchasing this book should also purchase Lawrence D. Longley's The Electoral College Primer (LJ 10/15/96) for a more thorough examination of the Electoral College. Joyce M. Cox, Nevada State Lib. & Archives, Carson City, NV (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-09-03:
These essays in defense of the Electoral College, edited by Gregg (The Presidential Republic), a professor of leadership at the University of Louisville, echo the conservative ethos: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Admittedly, the college is a peculiar constitutional institution; each state is given a number of "electors" who in turn vote in each state for the president, in most cases on a winner-take-all basis. So candidates actually must win states, and can as with Gore win the popular vote and lose the presidency. Peculiar indeed, but the scholars assembled here among them Walter Berns, Andrew E. Busch and Daniel Patrick Moynihan argue that the Electoral College has "done much good and very little ill in American history." The college makes of the states more than just administrative units, giving them a voice in national affairs. Bush the younger won, after all, by only one electoral vote, so each electoral vote counts and candidates must pay attention to the diverse regions of the country. Minorities are empowered as they tend to be concentrated and their influence is most felt in state voting. Parties must moderate their stances to appeal to voters across a diverse continental nation, and the winner-take-all system helps reinforce a stable two-party system. Unfortunately, the wisdom here is sullied by too much sectarian silliness. Those on a certain side of the abortion debate, for instance, are labeled "advocates of infanticide," and those questioning the Electoral College are "discontented demagogues" or "shameless demagogues." But a system in which voter turnout in presidential elections averages 50% might legitimately raise some questions, and the authors here would do well to temper their tone lest they be seen as more concerned with defending Bush's election than with the fate of the republic. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2002-07-01:
Gregg (Univ. of Louisville) has edited a volume of essays on the Electoral College for students of the presidency and American federalism. Prompted by the 2000 presidential election, Gregg confronts critics whose "general bias" against the Electoral College is "driven by ideology more than scholarship" by bringing together in the volume "some of the more intelligent voices being raised in defense of the Electoral College." The result is a learned and intelligent conservative polemic. The sum of the book falls far short of the individual articles, nearly all of which are quite good, especially those of Andrew Busch and James R. Stoner Jr. The articles are constitutional in outlook, well informed as far as they go, and historically sensitive but very brief and, taken together, highly repetitive. The themes of the Electoral College as a spur to political moderation, a source of protection of the federal principle, and a corrective to plebiscitary politics are raised repeatedly. Graduate students may find disappointing the book's lack of sustained discussion and peremptory dismissal of the Electoral College's critics. Recommended for undergraduates. M. E. Bailey Berry College
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, September 2001
Booklist, October 2001
Library Journal, October 2001
Choice, July 2002
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Unpaid Annotation
The distinguished contributors to this instructive volume -- including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Michael Barone, and Walter Berns -- show why it would be folly to abolish the Electoral College by explaining not only its historical and cultural significance, but also its contemporary role in instilling a measure of stability and sanity to our electoral and party systems. This is the definitive volume for all those interested in the logic, and continuing importance of this unique American political institution.
Table of Contents
The Origins and Meaning of the Electoral Collegep. 1
The Development and Democratization of the Electoral Collegep. 27
Federalism, the States, and the Electoral Collegep. 43
Moderating the Political Impulsep. 55
The Electoral College and the Future of American Political Partiesp. 79
The Electoral College and the Uniqueness of Americap. 87
Creating Constitutional Majorities: The Electoral College after 2000p. 103
Afterword - Outputs: The Electoral College Produces Presidentsp. 115
Article II and the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitutionp. 121
Federalist Papers 39 and 68p. 129
Notesp. 145
About the Contributorsp. 157
Indexp. 161
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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