Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
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. Why are a state’s electoral votes awarded on a winner-take-all basis? Why not have a national popular vote, which is what most Americans would prefer?
Such questions are not unique to our own time. The Electoral College has had critics since the early nineteenth century, and over the years Congress has considered hundreds of constitutional amendments aimed at transforming the electoral system. On several occasions, such amendments have come close to passage. Alexander Keyssar traces the origins of the Electoral College as a much wrangled-over compromise among delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention who had no previous experience with electing a chief executive. He explores all of the major efforts to abolish or significantly reform the Electoral College?in the 1810s and 1820s, the post–Civil War era, and the late 1960s?to discover why these efforts have failed. The reasons, which have shifted over time, include the tendency of political parties to elevate partisan advantage above democratic values, America’s fraught legacy of slavery and racism, and the extraordinary difficulty of passing any constitutional amendment. Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? demonstrates that the most common explanation for the institution’s persistence?that small states have blocked reforms for fear of losing political influence?is simply untrue.