‘Too fragile to survive’: The Electoral College born of an American experiment

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s electors are set to convene Monday to make their picks for the next president and vice president of the United States.

But in the weeks after the 2020 election, the commonwealth could be next in the popular vote push, as states pledge to do away with the centuries-old Electoral College system in its current form.

So where did this system come from? Why does it exist?

“When the framers were creating the Constitution, the one thing they were most worried about was that the United States simply wouldn’t survive,” Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Associate History Professor Dr. Carolyn Eastman said. “From the very beginning, when the framers began to discuss how do you elect people to federal office, they really worried about how to create a certain kind of stability for the United States.”

Eastman is a historian of early America, with special interest in eighteenth and nineteenth-century histories of political culture, the media, and gender. But she says the founders’ concern for the survival of the U.S. started long before then.

“When they looked back to history, one of the most primary examples that they had for a republic was in Rome, and the Roman Republic fell because of tyranny,” Eastman said. “Ultimately, an autocrat rose to power, and the whole Roman Republic experiment collapsed.”

The Electoral College system was born from the minds of elite, highly educated, white men, many of whom were enslavers.

“They couldn’t imagine a system where people like them weren’t in power,” Eastman said. “So when they were trying to create this constitutional framework for a democratic republic, which would be the only one of its kind existing at that time in the world, they didn’t even believe that voting should be available to all white men, much less to women or people of color.”

In creating the Electoral College, the founding fathers employed two stopgap measures to protect against the collapse of the U.S., the first being that members of the Senate would not be elected by popular vote, but instead chosen by state legislatures. That practice did not end until 1913 with the 17th Amendment.

“The second stopgap measure was they created electors in each state who would observe the popular vote and take that into account in looking at who they would consider for president, but they would ultimately make their own determination,” Eastman said. “You can hear their anxiety about democracy in their debates.”

However, the idea that the electors would act independently of the popular vote and use their elite education to select their best pick for president did not last.

“Within a generation, by the 1820s, not only did all the state electors follow the electoral vote, but they had adopted the practice that we know of winner take all, so that, even if the state of Virginia was closely divided by two candidates for president, all of Virginia’s electoral votes would go to the winner of the popular vote,” Eastman said. “Winner-take-all was always controversial, but it’s something that’s been around for a long time.”

Some would say, too long.

In the wake of the 1968 election, Senator Birch Bayh led a congressional discussion about eliminating the Electoral College.

“That was a time when George Wallace was running for president. He was running as a third-party candidate, and, of course, George Wallace was a segregationist. He had been governor of the state of Alabama who had opposed integration, racial integration,” Eastman said. “When he ran for president, he knew that he would not get elected, he knew he couldn’t get those votes. But he developed this math for reckoning that if he got enough electoral votes to prevent either the Democrat or the Republican from winning the election, the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives to select a winner.”

Wallace hoped his electoral votes would force the ultimate winner of the 1968 election to adhere to some of his demands for the forthcoming presidential administration.

Although Republican Richard Nixon would go on to become the 37th President of the United States, defeating both Wallace and Democrat Hubert Humphrey, many politicians then recognized the danger of the Electoral College and considered its abolition.

“The amendment was ultimately filibustered in the Senate, so it ultimately failed in 1970,” Eastman said. “But that’s really the closest we’ve come to eliminating the Electoral College by the usual route of constitutional amendment.”

In order to do away with the Electoral College system, both houses of Congress would need to vote on a constitutional amendment on a two-thirds basis, and then three-quarters of the states would have to agree.

Without the approval of such an amendment, the Electoral College remains, which is why 13 electors will meet at the Virginia State Capitol on Monday at noon to cast their votes for the next president and vice president of the United States.

“Those calls around Election Day always assume that the electors will behave in December as they have been instructed,” Eastman said. “Each state chooses and charges its electors following the election, and those people are instructed to follow the will of the people of the state.”

Sometimes, however, the electors do not vote in line with the people from their state, which can change the outcome of an election. But those electors tend to be the minority, thereby maintaining the assumed results after Election Day.

“Putting off the votes of the electors until December has always been a safeguard against widespread Election Day confusion — as in 2000, when Florida’s voting system was revealed to be flawed, and recounts followed the election,” Eastman said. “This year, the election simply wasn’t as close, and wasn’t decided by a single state, so it was easier to know the outcome within a few days of Election Day.”

The votes of electors in each state Monday will finalize the winner of the 2020 election.

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