As part of my recent fascination with competitive and ‘de-competitive’ merit selection, I’ve been looking at the origins of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Intriguingly though we now associate elections with competition between candidates, in both the British parliamentary system and the American presidency, elections were not competitive. Indeed, contemporaries regarded the idea of competition for such an office with alarm for its tendency to encourage ‘faction’.
But isn’t an ‘election’ competitive by definition? Isn’t that the meaning of the word? Well no! That’s what the word implies today, but its root in Latin simply means “to pick” or “to choose”. The word ‘elect’ retains this sense in Christian theology when speaking of ‘the elect’ — those chosen, not in competition with each other but by God. One can circle back from this reference to observe that the electorate is the sovereign body when it comes to its being represented, and in this sense an ‘election’ is the choosing by the sovereign body — if you’re dealing with God, I’m reliably informed that He’s sovereign and so he elects the elect. And if you’re dealing with the electorate, it chooses who is the elect.
Early seventeenth-century English parliamentary election.
In early modern England, political choice was subsumed within a wide system of social relations. Complex notions of honor, standing, and deference, shared but not always articulated, helped to regulate and absorb conflict between and within loosely defined status groups. The selection of members of Parliament, an intermittent event for county property holders and members of designated boroughs, was but one part of a continuing process of social distinction. Despite the uniqueness of Parliament in the political history of the nation, in the ongoing life of the communities that chose its members, parliamentary selection existed in a broader context. For peers of the realm, a summons to the House of Lords was a prescriptive right, another attribute of their nobility. For members of the small group of dominant gentry families within the county communities, it was both a responsibility of service and a privilege conferred on them by kin and neighbors. For rich merchants of large boroughs, it followed as part of the cursus honorum of civic office; while for gentlemen and lawyers, who obtained the majority of borough seats parceled out to patrons, it was an occasion to follow their own busi- nesses, advance their careers, or simply partake of the delights of the capital.
Selections differed according to social structure, population, and wealth. In counties the keynotes of parliamentary selection were honor and deference. Men were chosen members of Parliament or given the right to nominate members on the basis of criteria largely social in nature. This was especially true of the senior knight of the shire, which by the early seventeenth century had become a mark of social distinction that outweighed all other factors. Counties whose internal social elites were dominated by one or two families — like Herefordshire or Surrey — honored these men and their heirs regularly. Counties like Kent or Somerset, which had more variegated elites, developed patterns of rotation.
The principle of parliamentary selection — and, judging from the available evidence, the reality as well — was unified choice. “By and with the whole advice, assent and consent,” was how the town of Northampton put it when enrolling the selection of Christopher Sherland and Richard Spencer in 1626. Communities avoided division over parliamentary selections for all the obvious reasons – cost, trouble, fear of riot, challenge to magisterial authority — and for one other: The refusal to assent to the choice of an M.P. was an explicit statement of dishonor. Freely given by the will of the shire or the borough, a place in Parliament was a worthy distinction. Wrested away from competitors in a divisive contest, it diminished the worth of both victor and vanquished.
Source: Kishlansky Mark A, 1986. Parliamentary Selection Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press.
In that context, the few competitive elections in early 17th century Britain were eschewed with great ardour. And when they occurred, it was seen as a social disaster which could fuel fueds, factions and strife for decades to come. Meanwhile in the US, the Electoral College was designed to ensure that a statesman was chosen as president rather than an agent of faction and ‘cabal’. The country nearly fell into civil war as this broke down, as it did with Jefferson’s Republican partisanship.
As the presidential campaign heats up, so too has the movement to abolish or otherwise neutralize the electoral college.
Some advocates argue that the electoral college was originally established to help less-populated states retain power, or to have every part of the country heard from in electing a chief executive. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) claims the system was designed to help the slave states.
But these are modern interpretations of what really happened at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The electoral college was designed with two purposes: to separate the branches of government in an attempt to avoid “cabals” and to prevent foreign corruption. Some of the Founding Fathers assumed it would almost never actually elect a president. In other words, we could say the electoral college failed to achieve most of what the founders designed it to do.
The electoral college was not a replacement for direct election — because that possibility never received serious consideration at the convention. (Only two of 11 states voted for a popular election of the president.) As James Madison’s notes make clear, there was very little support for a popular election of the president. The original idea in his influential Virginia Plan was that the new bicameral legislature — Congress — would itself gather to elect the executive, and the convention repeatedly returned to that idea.
We may find this odd, but during the 1780s, such a setup was the norm. In eight of the 13 states, the state legislature elected the governor. In two other states, if no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote, the legislature had the power of selection.
Nevertheless, the idea of the legislature electing a president disturbed the convention delegates, who were focused on establishing separation of powers and averting foreign interference. Having Congress elect the president would result in “corruption and cabals,” according to Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris (who is credited with actually hand-writing the Constitution). Alexander Hamilton, who first proposed the electoral college, focused on the potential dangers of foreign corruption. Having the selection spread among the states rather than in the compact Congress would help ward off the dangers of “foreign powers” gaining “an improper ascendant in our councils.”
The electoral college was adopted to serve as an alternative to Congress in the presidential election process, spread out among the states and with no members of Congress allowed to serve in the body. To win election, a candidate would have to win a majority of electoral votes, and if that failed to occur, Congress would ultimately decide who among the candidates receiving votes would become president.
In fact, most delegates thought the latter scenario would be the norm, with the electoral college “nominating” the five most worthy candidates so that Congress could select a president from that group. One delegate, George Mason, predicted that Congress would be deciding the president “nineteen times out of twenty.” Antifederalist Paper No. 72 claimed that the electoral college settling on a president was “not likely to happen twice in the same century.”
That’s not what happened, though. George Washington would easily win electoral majorities in 1789 and 1792. But after he left office, the electoral college plan almost immediately began to break down. Instead of multiple candidates running for the presidency as the Founding Fathers had expected, political parties quickly formed and presidential elections seemed to become one-on-one fights. The election of 1800 spelled doom for the original plan, resulting in an electoral college tie between Thomas Jefferson and his presumed running mate, Aaron Burr. The vote went to the House of Representatives (which took 36 ballots to elect Jefferson). The debacle led to the adoption of the 12th Amendment, which changed the vice president from a competitor and runner-up to (in most cases) a subservient running mate.
The next time Congress had to choose the president was in 1824, when Andrew Jackson, who finished first in the electoral college, lost in the House to John Quincy Adams. Since then (except for the disputed 1876 election), Congress has not been involved in a single presidential selection. The electoral college, instead, has moved up from its more humble beginnings as a potential nominating body to serving as the real selector of presidents.
The electoral college did not succeed in warding off the creation of “cabals” — better known today as political parties. And as the 2016 election showed, foreign powers have been very happy to try to manipulate the election, and the current version of the electoral college did nothing to limit such behavior.
Despite this, all the plans to get rid of the electoral college are, at the moment, fantastical. The Republican Party is firmly opposed to the idea, and there seems little hope that Republicans will change their minds. The Interstate Compact has not been adopted by any “red” states, and even if it passed, it would be certain to face legal challenges.
It’s safe to say the electoral college is here to stay. But in accepting that, we shouldn’t pretend as though the electoral college is part of some grand bargain that the founders enacted to balance the country. It’s not. Instead, it’s a relic of the 18th century that failed in some of its most important intended purposes.