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Origins of the Electoral College

The process was never intended to be democratic. The first presidents were appointed by elites, not elected by the masses. Not until 1820s, with the rise of Andrew Jackson, did popular voting have a role in the selection of presidents.

The modern principle of democracy--repeated in nearly every media account of the Florida vote confusion--holds the president should be elected by majority vote because that will permit government to do what the people want. But the Founders went to great lengths to insulate the activities of their new government from democratic pressures. One of the ways that they tried to limit their government from democracy was by selecting the nation’s chief executive through the use of an electoral college, rather than through direct democratic election.

The electoral college never worked as planned, however, and by 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected as president, the method of electing the president had almost completely transformed into the democratic system that still exists at the end of the twentieth century.

This metamorphosis of the electoral college mirrors changes that have occurred more generally in American government during its first two centuries. At its founding, American citizens believed that their government was created to protect their liberty, and the government was designed to be limited in scope. The Constitution was written to protect the rights of individuals and limit the powers of government. In other words, it was intended to preserve liberty. Not only did the Founders not intend for public policy to be determined democratically, they actively tried to design their new government to prevent public policy from being directed by the demands of its citizens. They recognized that liberty could be compromised by democracy, and that the will of the majority had the potential to be just as tyrannical as a king or dictator.

Yet over the centuries the principle of liberty that the Founders fought for became less of a priority for American citizens, and the principle of democracy became more significant. At the end of the twentieth century the term liberty has an almost quaint sound to it, while trying to encourage the spread of American-style democracy around the world has become a significant part of American foreign policy.

The electoral college was an important part of their attempt to limit the influence of democracy on American government. The evolution of the electoral college is, in one sense, only a small part of the story of the transformation of the fundamental principle of American government from liberty to democracy. Yet it is an important part of the story, because it was one of the earliest manifestations of this transformation. Within a few decades of the nation’s founding, one of the most significant checks that the Founders tried to enact to control democracy had been eliminated.

Republic, Yes; Democracy, No

The Constitution was designed so that a group of highly qualified experts would be designated to select the president and vice president. Article II, Section 1, states, “Each State shall appoint, in such a 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 as an Elector.” Constitutional amendments have changed some aspects of the process by which the president is elected, but this provision remains unchanged.

It is apparent from the wording of this provision of the Constitution that the Founders did not intend for electors to be democratically elected (although they did not rule out the possibility), and is even more apparent that however the electors were chosen, they did not intend the method of choice to dictate how the electors would cast their ballots. Otherwise, why would the Constitution rule out federal officials as electors?

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution continues, “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.” The top vote getter would then become President if that person received votes from a majority of the electors, and the second-highest vote getter would become Vice President. This provision was changed slightly by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 so that the President and Vice President were voted on separately, but the electoral college system remained essentially unchanged otherwise.

The Constitution has never bound electors to vote for specific candidates, and the Constitution makes it clear that the Founders envisioned electors using their discretion to select the candidates they viewed as best-qualified. That system remains intact at the end of the twentieth century, and even though electors are associated with specific candidates, it has not been uncommon for an occasional elector to break ranks and vote for someone other than the candidate chosen a state’s voters.

In practice, most presidents have won election by receiving a majority of the electoral votes, but at the time the Constitution was written the Founders anticipated that in most cases no candidate would receive votes from a majority of the electors. The Founders reasoned that most electors would prefer candidates from their own states, so the typical elector would vote for one candidate from his own state and a candidate from another state, following the constitutional requirement, and it would be unlikely that voting along state lines would produce any candidate with a majority of votes.

This state bias is reinforced by the fact that these electors are constitutionally charged to meet in their states and then forward their votes to the President of the Senate to be counted. There is much less of an opportunity for consensus under this system than if the electors from all of the states gathered together in a common location, making it even more likely that no candidate would receive a majority.

Today, it is common for people to conjecture that electors were to meet in their own states rather than gather in a central location because transportation was much more difficult then. Yet it is apparent that the system of having electors meet in their own states rather than all together as one group serves another purpose: it makes it more difficult for the electoral college to arrive at a consensus when there is in fact no consensus candidate. Section II, Article 1 of the Constitution specifies that “...if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner choose the President.” The Founders envisioned that in most cases no candidate would end up receiving votes from a majority of the electors, so the president would end up being chosen by the House of Representatives from the list of the five top electoral vote recipients.

As it has evolved, the actual practice of electing a president is quite different from the way that the Founders intended. The Founders intended electoral votes to be cast by electors who would be more knowledgeable than the general public, rather than by popular mandate, and the Founders envisioned that in most cases the final decision would be made by the House of Representatives rather than the electors anyway. Furthermore, there was no indication that the number of electoral votes actually received should carry any weight besides creating a list of the top five candidates. The House could then use its discretion to determine who on that list would make the best president.

Quite clearly, the process was not intended to be democratic, although it has evolved that way despite the fact that the Constitutional provisions for selecting a president remain essentially unchanged. As specified in the Constitution, the election process should resemble the way that a search committee might serve to locate a high-ranking corporate (or government, or academic) administrator. The committee, like the electoral college, would develop a list of candidates, and the CEO (or bureau chief, or university president) would then select his or her most preferred candidate from the list. As it actually has evolved, this multi-step process has been set aside in favor of popular elections.

How Electors Were Chosen

The current selection of electors is by a restricted general ticket, which allows voters only to vote for a bloc of electors who represent a specific candidate, but this method of election was not well-established until at least three decades after presidential elections began, and the most common method for selecting electors early in the nation’s history was to have state legislatures do it.

In the first presidential election, only two states, Pennsylvania and Maryland, used general ticket elections to select their presidential electors. In the second presidential election in 1792, there were 15 states, and three used general ticket elections, 10 chose their electors in the state legislature, and two had district elections for electors. In the election of 1800, which elected Thomas Jefferson for his first term, there were 16 states, and only one used general ticket election while 10 had their state legislatures choose their electors.

The selection of electors by state legislatures remained common through 1820, when James Monroe was elected to his second term of office. In that election, nine out of 24 states chose their electors in the state legislature, while eight used general ticket elections. After 1820 the selection of electors through general ticket elections became rapidly more common. In 1824, 12 of the 24 states used general ticket elections, and only six selected electors in their state legislatures. By 1828, 18 of 24 states used general ticket elections and only two chose electors in the legislature, and by 1832, only South Carolina chose their electors in the legislature, one state had district elections, and the other 22 used general ticket elections. In 1836 all states but South Carolina used general ticket elections. South Carolinians did not vote directly for their electors until after the Civil War.

The movement toward democratic elections for president in the nation’s early history is striking. States used a variety of methods for selecting their electors, but through 1820 the most common method of selecting electors was through the state legislature, without direct voting. By 1832, just twelve years later, direct voting was used almost nationwide. The design of the Constitution makes it apparent that the Founders did not intend to have the president elected by direct vote, but they left it up to the states to determine exactly how presidential electors would be chosen. The result was that despite the retention of the electoral college, the president is effectively chosen by direct vote, and has been since the 1820s. The movement toward the democratic election of the president also corresponds with a more democratic notion of the office itself, beginning in the 1820s.

The Elite Presidency: 1789-1829

When the office of the president was being designed by the Founders at the Constitutional convention, one factor underlying the discussion was the assumption that George Washington would be elected the first president. Washington, revered today, also commanded a huge amount of respect after the Revolution, and the office was designed in part with the thought that Washington would set the precedent for the details of the office that were left out of the Constitution. Design of the government would have been more difficult, and might have proceeded along different lines, had there not been such an obvious and popular candidate to become the first president.

The Founders were wary of the potential for tyranny that majorities could exert in a democratic government, and tried to guard against the exploitation of a minority by a majority in several ways. The role of democratic decision-making was severely limited both by insulating the new government from direct voting and by constitutionally limiting the scope of the government.

In addition, the Founders wanted to guard against the emergence of factions to prevent citizens from viewing their interests as being represented by one group of political candidates rather than another. Especially with regard to the presidency, the system was designed to select the most qualified individual to head the executive branch of government, rather than to select a candidate who represented some citizens more than others.

The Constitution makes no reference to political parties, and the methods of selecting federal officials were designed to prevent them from playing a major role. Modern sources tend to cite party affiliations for all past presidents, but political parties in the modern sense did not assume any importance in presidential elections until 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected. Candidates for the office came from a political elite, and because of widespread selection of electors by state legislatures, candidates needed to win the support of others in the political elite in order to win the office. Despite the rapid emergence of factions in American government, prior to 1828 parties did not campaign for presidential candidates.

The first six presidents were members of America’s political elite, chosen by America’s political elite. After a close election for his first term, Jefferson received 162 out of 176 electoral votes to win his second term, in the first election where the vice president was selected from a separate ballot. Madison and Monroe, the fourth and fifth presidents, each won two terms in office with electoral landslides, making the elite nature of the office uncontroversial. Outside of George Washington, Monroe might lay claim to the title of the least partisan of all American presidents. But controversy erupted in the election of 1824, when John Quincy Adams was selected by the House of Representatives to be the nation’s sixth president.

Four candidates received electoral voters for president in 1824. Andrew Jackson received the highest number of electoral votes, with 99, followed by John Quincy Adams with 84, William H. Crawford with 41, and Henry Clay with 37. Because no candidate had a majority, following the rules modified by the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives was to choose the president from the top three vote recipients. Rather than choose Jackson, a war hero but a political outsider, the House chose Adams, the son of the nation’s second president and a member of the political elite. Adams’ election followed the rules, but Jackson’s supporters were outraged by the choice, believing that Adams was chosen only because of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay in which Clay was appointed Secretary of State in exchange for Clay’s support of Adams’s candidacy.

The history of the election of 1824 tends to emphasize the collusion between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay that eventually delivered Adams the presidency. But a neglected underlying factor in the historical controversy was the evolution of the electoral college in the nation’s first few decades. Adams’ election followed the constitutional rules exactly, and even followed the intent of the Founders. No candidate received votes from a majority of the electors, so the House was to select the candidate they preferred, which they did. Neither the Founders nor the Constitution intended to give any preference to the top electoral vote-getter, or to take into account the number of electoral votes each candidate received. And even if they had, the electoral vote counts of Adams and Jackson were very close anyway. Members of the House simply undertook their constitutional responsibility to choose a president, following exactly the constitutional rules and the intentions of the Founders.

So why were Jackson’s supporters so upset? They were upset because the actual practice of presidential elections had deviated significantly from the Founders’ intent in the decades preceding the 1824 election, and if the actual practice at the time had been followed, rather than the literal rules of the Constitution, Jackson’s supporters believed that he would have been elected president.

Transition Toward Popular Voting

The Founders intended for the electoral college to be composed of knowledgeable electors, as a kind of search committee to forward a list of the top candidates for the presidency to the House, which would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. But the system never worked this way. John Quincy Adams was the first president who did not receive an electoral majority, meaning that the nation had selected presidents for more than three decades without ever having a president selected in the House.

Over those decades, the methods that states used to select their electors had changed so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the electorate directly. Furthermore, electors represented specific candidates instead of being chosen for their ability to select good candidates. Thus, in effect, there was popular voting for president despite the process specified in the Constitution, and if the president was in fact elected by popular vote, Jackson’s supporters believed that he should have been selected as president in 1824.

Yet another factor was that after the election of 1800, when Jefferson narrowly edged out Adams, there was not a close election again until 1824, and with nearly a quarter of a century of consensus choices, Americans became accustomed to the idea that the popular vote winner became president. When almost all states had adopted general ticket voting for electors, the notion that the nation’s chief executive was chosen by popular vote was reinforced. The Constitution has always specified, and still specifies, that the presidential electors cast votes for president. Despite what the document says, and despite what the Founders intended, by 1824 the nation had gone to popular voting for president. Jackson’s supporters felt cheated because Jackson was denied the presidency despite the fact that he got the most votes.

The Formation of the Democratic Party

The dissatisfaction of Jackson’s supporters was consistent with the increasing democratization of American government. Presidential elections were increasingly being decided by popular vote, with the big transition occurring in the 1820s. In the election of 1820, nine states still chose their electors in their state legislatures, but by 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected, only six did. In 1828, when Andrew Jackson unseated Adams to become president, only two states had their legislatures choose their electors.

The increasingly democratic election methods came along with the formation of the Democratic party, which was organized for the specific purpose of electing Andrew Jackson to the presidency. Jackson’s supporters, led by Martin Van Buren, formed the Democratic party after the election of 1824 to ensure that in the next election Jackson would get a majority of the electoral votes, and so could not be denied the presidency by an elitist House of Representatives.

Van Buren’s efforts would undoubtedly have gone in a different direction had the electoral college actually functioned as the Founders intended. The formation of a political party to get popular support made a great deal of sense under the new system in which the president was chosen by popular vote, but would have made no sense a few decades before, when most electors were chosen by their state legislatures. The formation of the Democratic party was a significant event in American politics, but the party was formed only because of the transformation of the electoral college.

Van Buren’s efforts to form the Democratic party began even before John Quincy Adams was inaugurated as president. Although Adams’ bargain to appoint Clay as Secretary of State seemed reasonable to Adams, and there was no doubt that Clay was eminently qualified, Van Buren was quick to paint Adams as undertaking partisan activity. In contrast to presidents over the previous two decades, Adams had a very narrow base of political support, which in itself created political opposition and enhanced the appearance of factionalism. Adams could only appeal to his supporters in order to accomplish anything while in office, enhancing the appearance of governance by a political elite. Although the “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay gave Adams the immediate reward of the presidency, it also initiated the process that unseated him four years later, gave rise to the party system that has dominated American politics since, and greatly accelerated the movement of the United States toward democracy as its fundamental principle.

Well-defined factions had existed within American government for decades. It was in George Washington’s administration, after all, that Jefferson and Madison had begun their political party to oppose what they viewed as an unwarranted expansion of government power. In contrast to the elitist notion of party that had characterized American politics, and that had placed John Quincy Adams in the White House, Van Buren began to promote a new and more positive view of political parties. Van Buren’s idea was that “Parties should be democratic associations, run by the majority of the membership.”

Van Buren was well aware of the American tradition opposing political parties, tracing its origins back through Federalist 10 and supported in word by all six of the first presidents, but Van Buren, a Senator from New York, perceived legitimate political differences among politicians that could be expressed along party lines. More significantly, he viewed the opposition of incumbents to organized parties as support for the continuance of political dominance by America’s aristocratic elite. Without organized opposition, the elite could continue to dominate American government indefinitely. Parties served the legitimate interest of organizing political opposition, resisting the concentration of power in an elite group, and providing a broader representation of the political views of most Americans.

Van Buren did not misperceive the role that his new Democratic party would play. Indeed, the Founders tried to insulate the federal government from democratic control for what they believed were good reasons, and had no notion that the president would be chosen by the popular vote of American citizens. Yet the Democratic party had formed to do just that. The efforts of Van Buren and the Democrats were an unqualified success, and Jackson won the presidency in 1828, defeating the incumbent president by an electoral total of 178 to 83. The modern party system was born, as both the Democrats and their opponents recognized that after Jackson’s election, a party organization would be necessary to win the presidency. After Jackson’s two terms as president, Van Buren was elected president for one term, and was unseated by his Whig challenger William Henry Harrison in 1840. The American two-party system has evolved since then, but it has not fundamentally changed.

Jacksonian Democracy

The public policy positions taken by Jackson were consistently aimed at the goal of reducing the scope and power of the federal government, but in addition to these policy ends, Jackson also believed in democracy as a means to control the federal government. The top officials in the government should be elected directly, Jackson believed, including Senators and the president, in order to make them more accountable to the people, and once elected, they should heed the wishes of the electorate.

Because popular election would give voters a direct method of removing from office officials who did not further the will of the electorate, popular elections create an incentive structure that holds elected officials more accountable to the demands of the voters. Through democracy, Jackson wanted to remove the federal government from the control of the political elite that had overseen it since the approval of the new Constitution. As it happens, his ideas on democracy have had a more lasting impact on the nation than his Jeffersonian ideas of limited government.

As an outsider, a war hero, and a person who had worked his way up to national prominence rather than having been born into privilege, Jackson found a sympathetic audience in the electorate. As one historian put it, “it was much in Jackson’s favor that he was an ignorant man, fully as devoid as the average citizen could be of all the training, through books or practice, which had theretofore been commonly regarded as constituting the odious superior qualifications of a detestable upper class.”

In short, Jackson’s ideas were not the product of thoughtful scholarship and an in-depth understanding of political theory, but rather were a reaction to his perception that a government established to protect the liberty of its citizens had been accumulating power in the hands of a political elite. Democracy was the mechanism Jackson favored for redistributing power away from this elite and returning it to the people.

What Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate.

Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic, and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters rather than protecting their liberty. Of course, Jackson would not have been able to do so had the electoral college functioned as the Founders originally envisioned. Given the changes in presidential elections that occurred prior to 1828, it was inevitable that somebody would come along who would mobilize popular opinion, and that person happened to be Andrew Jackson. But Jacksonian democracy was as much a product of the evolution of the electoral college than it was of Jackson himself.

When one analyzes the changes associated with Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the context of the earlier changes in the electoral college, one can see that the most lasting changes brought by Jackson were a result of the electoral college rather than Jackson himself. The growth of political parties and interest-group politics, and the promotion of democracy as a fundamental principle of American government, all came as a result of the move to popular voting for president.

Jackson’s ideas for limiting the scope of the federal government were completely undone by the growth of democracy in America. Indeed, had Jackson not been so successful in promoting democracy, the cause of liberty would have been better served. But even this gives Jackson too much credit, because by the time he was elected, the incentives in presidential politics had changed, making parties and interest group politics inevitable.

The Founders envisioned a system of presidential elections that would have curbed the rise of mass democracy and the loss of liberty it invites, but in designing the rules for elections, they left much to the discretion to the states. If they had clearly specified the non-democratic procedure they had envisioned for presidential elections, that would have gone a great way toward insulating the presidency from the demands of popular opinion, and would have furthered the cause of liberty that they tried so hard to embody in the Constitution.


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