The Electoral College: Q&A with Jesse Wegman

The framers of the Constitution battled over it. Lawmakers have tried to amend or abolish it more than 700 times. We sat down with Jesse Wegman, author of Let the People Pick the President, to discuss a little bit about the Electoral College and its role in the history of the United States.

What made you decide to write a full book on the Electoral College? 

I had written an editorial calling for the abolishment of the College after Trump’s victory in 2016, but I’d let the matter drop after that, doubting that anything could be done in the foreseeable future. Then one day in mid-2017, I met with Reed Hundt, who runs Making Every Vote Count, a nonprofit that supports the popular-vote interstate compact as well as other paths to achieving a popular vote. We sat in a room and argued for hours. I entered a skeptic and left a convert. It was clear to me then that not only was the nation suffering greatly under the distortions and inequities caused by the Electoral College and the state winner-take-all laws, but that it was possible to change the system, and sooner than I’d thought. I wrote another editorial, this one more informed about the function and chances of the interstate compact. Reed called after he read it and said, “You should write a book about this.” And so I did. 

How would the Constitutional framers see the Electoral College today? 

That’s a fascinating and complicated question. I’ve asked it of several scholars of the era, and as with so many other issues relating to the Constitution’s adoption, they have differing thoughts on it. Some historians point to James Madison’s letter to a friend in 1823, in which he claims that the majority of the framers anticipated that states would appoint their electors by congressional district, and not by winner-take-all, which he found very destructive. (Madison even supported an amendment banning winner-take-all laws.) Others believe the College is functioning more or less as the framers expected it to.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

As a general matter, however, everyone agrees that none of the framers anticipated the rapid development of national political parties, and how quickly that new reality would alter the nature of presidential elections and the functioning of the Electoral College. None of the framers anticipated that electors would almost immediately become rubber stamps. None anticipated the 1800 election, which led to the ratification of the 12th Amendment, which fundamentally changed the system of electing the president that they had designed. So, while I’m not a historian, I would say the men who designed and agreed to the Electoral College in 1787 would be shocked, and not very happy, to see how it works in practice today. 

Did attitudes toward slavery play a part in the development of the Electoral College? 

Yes. Attitudes toward slavery played a part in every element of the Constitution’s design, from the creation of the Senate to the three-fifths clause to the adoption of the Electoral College. 

In mid-July, after the convention had settled on two of the most contentious debates of all — over the nature and shape of Congress — the delegates returned to the question of presidential election. Madison said that he believed a direct popular vote would be the “fittest in itself” and most likely to produce a good president. And yet, he said, “there was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.” In other words, Madison was saying, the southern states would not agree to a popular vote because they had large populations of slaves who could not vote, and would thus lose out in every election. 

Madison was a southern slaveholder himself, of course, but he was always trying to find a way to balance the competing interests at the convention. On the matter of electing the president, he said a few days after that earlier comment, “local considerations [that is, the south’s greater restrictions on voting] must give way to the general interest. As an individual from the Southern States he was willing to make the sacrifice.”

The protection and maintenance of slavery wasn’t the only reason the framers settled on the Electoral College — there was also a concern that most voters in the late 18th century would not have the necessary knowledge of candidates for national office to make an informed decision — but the protection and maintenance of slavery is inextricable from the deal the framers struck over electing the president.

What’s the most common myth about the Electoral College you encountered while researching your book? 

There are several myths that have been around for decades or longer, refusing to die despite hard evidence that proves them wrong. Among the ones I see most often is the idea that without an Electoral College, “big cities” (i.e., New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco and so forth) would dominate the outcome, deciding the president for themselves and making everyone else’s vote irrelevant. This is simply incorrect. Many Americans vastly overestimate just how big our cities are. The five most populous American cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix—together hold a little more than 19 million people, or just under 6 percent of the country. In other words, 94 percent of the American people do not live in the cities that would supposedly dominate a popular vote election. Expand the circle to include the 50 biggest cities—those with populations larger than 350,000—and you get to about 50 million people, or 15 percent of the United States. 

Take California alone. It’s the biggest state, and Electoral College defenders often point to it as the place that will literally run rampant over the rest of the country. What’s the reality? California holds about 12 percent of the country’s population, and about 62 percent of its voters chose the Democratic candidate in 2016. Put another way, about 1 in 10 Amer- ican voters are from California, and a third of those voters are Republican. So it’s not clear how California would be the deciding factor in favor of either party.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic and the other most common myths about the College, so if you’re still interested, read the book! 

There have been hundreds of attempts to abolish the Electoral College. When did the US come the closest? 

Of the more than 700 attempts to reform or abolish the College over history, only one has succeeded: the 12th Amendment, passed in 1804 to remedy a central problem with the original College’s design, which allowed for a tie between the top two finishers, as happened in 1800. The 12th Amendment was a technical fix to the College that left it otherwise intact. In 1969 and 1970, however, the nation came the closest it ever has to abolishing the College outright. The story has disappeared down the American memory hole, which is all the more astonishing for how close we actually came to a popular vote for president. The man driving the effort was Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who had just managed to pass the 25th Amendment on presidential disability, and who became convinced after a series of hearings in 1966 and 1967 that the nation needed a popular vote. Public opinion was already moving in Bayh’s direction when the 1968 election took place, and nearly resulted in catastrophe — the third-party candidate, the segregationist George Wallace of Alabama, almost forced the election into the House of Representatives — making it clear to millions of Americans how broken their presidential-election system was. 

In September 1969, the House overwhelmingly passed an amendment abolishing the College and instituting a popular vote for president. It would next go to the Senate, and if it passed there, to the states, where surveys suggested there was enough support to ratify it. A year later, it was dead — it never made it to the Senate floor. Want to know why? Read the book!

You claim that rural voters are hurt by the Electoral College. How? 

For the same reason that most voters are hurt by the Electoral College: They live in states that are not “battleground” states, and so they don’t get any attention from the presidential candidates. Candidates understandably focus all their attention on the dozen or so states where the popular-vote outcome is too close to call, and where (thanks to the winner-take-all rule), a swing of a few thousand or even a few hundred popular votes can move a big batch of electoral votes from one candidate’s column to the other. 

The result of this is that 80 percent of all Americans — those who don’t live in a battleground state — are ignored, and their votes are politically irrelevant. Candidates don’t spend time trying to reach them, or listening to their concern, or crafting platforms that speak to their interests. 

The vast majority of rural voters live in “the land of the ignored.” Whether they live in “safe” Republican states like Wyoming or Tennessee, or in “safe” Democratic states like California and New York (there are lots of rural voters in both states), their interests matter not a whit to candidates of either party. Under a popular vote, rural voters would be needed just as much as urban voters and suburban and exurban and every other type of voter — because in a popular-vote election, every vote would matter, every vote would be equal, and the candidate with the most nationwide would win.


© Bill Wadman

Jesse Wegman is a member of the New York Times editorial board, where he has written about the Supreme Court and legal affairs since 2013. He previously worked as a reporter, editor, and producer at outlets including National Public Radio, The New York Observer, Reuters, The Daily Beast and Newsweek. He graduated from New York University School of Law in 2005.

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