UNM Electoral College

A study on the electoral college in New Mexico

Electoral College Origins by Kim Proctor (Meeting 1)

Posted by Brianna Montoya-Harris on September 21, 2011

Electoral College (EC) Origins

Context: The Two Tyrannies

  • The origins of the EC are shaped by the Founding Fathers’ fear of tyranny

  • Two-strands of tyranny:

    • Tyranny from above

      • A repressive government

        • Prior to independence, American colonies lacked political representation in the British Parliament

        • This led to a series of ‘unjust’ acts, such as the Quartering Acts, the Stamp Act, and the Intolerable Acts

        • Taxation, lawmaking, policymaking without representation or means of legal redress

      • Fear of the King

        • (King George III)

          • No system of checks and balances or institutional control to counter king

        • Declaration of Independence cites the king as having “absolute tyranny over [the] states”

          • Forbade governors to pass laws

          • Called legislative bodies at times/places inaccessible to the public

          • Dissolved representative bodies

          • Refused to established judiciary powers; judges dependent on his will

    • Tyranny from below

      • Chaos of the masses

        • The creation of the US Constitution and its provisions including the EC also occurred against the backdrop of mass insurrection

        • Shays’ Rebellion:

          • Banks confiscated farmlands/homes to pay war debts

          • Farmers (many were vets) organized and formed a militia

          • Protesters shut down local courts to prevent judges from collecting and enforcing debts

        • Produced fears that the Revolution’s democratic impulse had grown unruly

        • Created fear that private liberty could be threatened by public liberty

    • The two tyrannies: background summary

      • Created a situation where fear of masses and fear of concentrated political power competed to shape government institutions

      • Fed 10: Guard against the power of a few and the “confusion of the multitude”

      • Fed 51: Guard against the oppression of rulers and injustice of dominance by various factions

Federalist Paper 68: Electing the President

  • Electors would be most likely to possess information

  • Feared disorder in administration

  • Given this context, how was their decision relevant for us?

The Framer’s Intention

  • Intentions can be framed in two themes:

    • The desire to minimize corruption

    • The desire to make the presidency and the EC institutionally separate from the other branches of government

  • Goal was to create a system where neither the electors nor the president were beholden to a preexisting institution

  • Legislative Intrigue

    • By making electors beholden to their states, the founders sought to minimize electoral drama (no fighting/factions in national legislature)

    • The most prominent desire was to limit the potential for corruption, control (making the president beholden to an existing body, i.e. Congress), and factionalism (competing power blocs)

  • Presidential Independence

    • The founders worried that a president selected by the state legislature would be unable to exercise independence

    • Focus on separation of powers; EC is institutionally independent

    • Electors would never be a standing body of the same persons

  • Voter Parochialism

    • The founders doubted voters’ abilities to make reasoned choices

      • Lack of education and literacy

      • Lack of access to information

      • Questionable journalism quality

    • The geography of the nation prevented knowledge from spreading

    • Overwhelming evidence of support for presidential election ‘by the people’

  • The Necessity of Intermediaries

    • Founders believed that electors would exercise discretion

    • Electors would be extraordinary citizens and civil servants

    • Electors would serve as a buffer between the president and the masses

    • No clear definition of the role of the popular will

  • Presidential Power

    • The founders were against concentrated power in electing the president (like that of a king); the EC was a body of persons

    • They feared that direct election would consolidate power/influence in one person

    • They had no previous experience designing an electoral system

  • Population Differences Among State

    • States were varied widely regarding population

    • The founders feared that large states would overwhelm small states

    • Faced the burden of consolidating competing states/regions into a cohesive nation

    • EC was a result of compromise between large and small states

  • Slavery

    • Divide was not just between large/small but also slave/non-slave

    • Southerners feared direct vote would shift the balance of power to the North (larger population and wider suffrage rights)

    • EC protected slave owners: based EC votes partially on slave population

Short Term Goals

  • The Philadelphia Convention was beset with tensions and rivalries

  • The EC was created out of the pressure to avoid conflict and fatigue. It was a practical consideration.

  • The EC was NOT the result of a coherent design. It was the result of compromises and conflicts.

  • The first choice of few delegates; generally seen as the ‘least bad’ option

  • Most delegates believed the EC’s problems would not be immediate (could be addressed later)

  • Knew that George Washington would be elected, which bought more time to address these issues

Contemporary Relevance

  • Social and Political Conditions

    • Threat of a king/dictator is unthinkable

    • Threat of mob rule is unthinkable

      • Well developed election administrations, police forces, national guards, etc.

      • Automated voting and vote counting (reduces fraud and enables recounts, verification)

      • Many voters feel that their presidential vote doesn’t matter; i.e. we need more democracy

    • Voters have incredible access to information through internet, television, radio, newspapers; literate society

    • Defending slavery is unthinkable

    • Legislative election is not an option for changing the Electoral College

    • The powers granted to the president would not change if election rules changed

  • Institutional Design

    • Although many of the social and political factors contributing to the creation of the EC are outdated, aspects of the institutional design and functioning of the EC are relevant

    • The Founders had relevant concerns about

      • Institutional design and complexity

      • The nature of representation and democracy

      • The role of states in elections


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