(In two of our past five presidential elections, 2000 and 2016, the candidates receiving a majority of the national popular vote were not the candidates ultimately selected by the Electoral College. These electoral anomalies, perceived by many on the political left as being “undemocratic,” have led to widespread calls for elimination of the Electoral College. The following essay is the first of a five-part series examining the available alternatives for electing the president and vice president of the United States.)
In spite of the best efforts of legions of social science teachers over many decades, few Americans understand the purpose of the Electoral College, the role that it plays in the selection of the President and Vice President of the United States, or the manner in which it conducts its business.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:
“Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may
direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and
Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but
no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or
Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
In simple terms, the Electoral College serves as an executive branch selection committee which meets once every four years on the first Monday after the second Wednesday, in the month following the quadrennial presidential election. On that day, it is the duty of the electors to choose the successful candidates for president and vice president of the United States, the only two jobs in the entire nation, public sector and private sector combined, whose constitutionally mandated job descriptions require the incumbents to be “natural born” U.S. citizens, at least thirty-five years of age, who have been residents of the United States for at least fourteen years.
However, during the first thirty-five years of our republic, in the years immediately following the Declaration of Independence, none of our first seven presidents… George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Q. Adams, or Andrew Jackson… could satisfy all three of those requirements. All were at least thirty-five years of age and all had been U.S. residents for at least fourteen years, but none could meet the “natural born Citizen” requirement because, in each case, they were born to parents who were British subjects prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To remedy that situation, and to allow the members of the Electoral College to fulfill their constitutional obligations, the Framers included a “grandfather clause” in Article II, Section 1, Clause 5, which reads as follows:
“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States,
at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the
Office of President.”
In doing so, the Framers drew a sharp distinction between the terms “citizen” and “natural born citizen.” Had they not drawn that clear distinction, Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 would have begun with the words,
“No Person except a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the
Office of President.”
Following the date of expiration of that “grandfather clause,” July 4, 1811, and from that date forward, it became necessary for all presidential and vice-presidential aspirants to be “natural born” U.S. citizens. And while some may yet argue that the terms “citizen” and “natural born Citizen” are synonymous, they clearly are not. The Framers understood that, while all “natural born citizens” are “citizens,” not all “citizens” are “natural born.” It is a clear and unambiguous standard that is central to the responsibility of members of the Electoral College.
The Framers had some very specific reasons for creating the Electoral College. Aside from their insistence that the president and vice president be elected by the states, and not by popular vote of the people, their primary concern was that a foreign power might one day attempt to achieve through corruption and political intrigue, that which they could not achieve on the battlefield. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 68, “These most deadly adversaries of republican government (cabal, intrigue, etc.) might actually have expected to make their approach from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
Although the concept of a “Manchurian candidate” did not find its way into the consciousness of the American electorate until 172 years later, when Hollywood produced a chillingly realistic film of that title, the Framers were clearly concerned about the dangers posed by foreign cabals and intrigues as early as the summer of 1787.
While the Framers felt it was important that the “sense of the people” be considered in the selection of presidents and vice presidents, they were uncomfortable with the notion of placing that responsibility in the hands of Congress because of the possibility, if not the likelihood, of undue influence being placed on the chief executive by special pleaders and favor-seekers in the legislative branch of government. Accordingly, Hamilton wrote, “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. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose.
Hamilton explained that, “It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station. 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 so complicated an investigation.
The manner in which presidential electors were to be chosen was left solely and exclusively to the legislatures of the various states, and neither the governors of the states, the Congress, nor the courts, federal or state, were given any jurisdiction whatsoever in the selection process.
(Note: This unique aspect of the presidential selection process was severely tested in November 2000 when the Florida Supreme Court, totally without jurisdiction, ordered recounts in only four of Florida’s 67 counties. It was only through the intervention of the United States Supreme Court, citing the “equal protection” clause of the U.S. Constitution, that the Florida court was prevented from interfering illegally in the outcome of the election.)
In their wisdom, the Framers intended that the members of the lower house of Congress be elected directly by the people; that the members of the upper house of the legislative branch, the U.S. Senate, be elected by the political institutions of the states, i.e., the state legislatures (see 17th Amendment); and that the president and vice president be elected, not by the people and not by the state legislatures, but by the states themselves. Hence, a system of electors chosen by each state to act on their behalf.
With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, where legislatures have decreed that presidential electors are to be determined by the popular vote within each congressional district, with two at-large electors in each state being awarded to the candidate receiving the plurality of the statewide popular vote, the legislatures of the remaining 48 states have developed winner-take-all systems in which the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes, statewide, receives all of the state’s electoral votes.
(Next week: Electoral; College Failures and Near-Failures)