George Washington and the First Electoral College

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States / Wikimedia Commons

It’s worth considering the astonishing contrast between 21st-century presidential elections and those contemplated by the 18th-century authors of the Constitution.

By Craig Dimitri

Everyone at the 1787 Federal Convention knew that Virginia delegate George Washington – who presided over the assembly – would be the first executive.  The challenge would be in determining how to elect Washington’s successors. As Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin said: “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”  

Accordingly, the Electoral College was originally designed to be many genuinely deliberative entities, within each state.  “Electors” would be chosen by the state legislatures.  Each elector would cast two ballots for president – but they could not vote for two candidates from their own state.

These conclaves– made up of the political elite – would assemble in December, in their respective state capitals, instead of the national capital.  Since all electors never convened in one place, it would be much more difficult to form alliances and parties. In 18th-century America, travel and communications were slow, arduous, and expensive, especially in winter.   

All of these provisions reduced the chances of any post-Washington candidate receiving an outright majority in the Electoral College. If nobody could do so, the House would choose among the top five vote-getters, by majority vote.  But the House would vote by state – and each state would have only one vote!   (After the House’s selection, the vice presidency would simply go to the remaining candidate with the highest number of electoral votes.)

Both large and small states wanted presidential elections to favor their interests.  Large states were given more electoral votes, based on the size of their House delegations.  But each state received two extra electoral votes, for its Senators, regardless of size – thus giving small states more weight in the Electoral College.  If elections did go to the House, the provision that each state would only have one vote favored small states as well.

It was the result – like everything in politics, then and now – of compromises.  It had been forged after heated arguments, between well-principled individuals.  This system – even at the time – was convoluted, confusing, and unpredictable.

Franklin’s prediction about Washington, shared by his colleagues, was accurate.  Washington was unanimously elected by the Electoral College in both 1788 and 1792.  But the painstaking compromise, on the issue of presidential elections in the House, has been needed only twice – in 1800 and 1824.

So, in light of history, perhaps we shouldn’t feel so bad about our byzantine political system for presidential elections.  Special interests, money, name recognition, pundits, scandals, gaffes, and sound bites dominate discourse.  And due to the primary and caucus system, it now takes almost two years to determine the victor.  However, the problems and dilemmas of selecting presidents have remained the same, through the centuries.  It was just as challenging for the 18th-century authors of the Constitution, as it is for us.

Originally published by the National Constitution Center, 12.14.2011, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



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