Fairvote.org is currently undergoing an upgrade, and some features may not be working as usual. We apologize for any inconvenience, and expect to be back at full capacity soon.

How the Electoral College Became Winner-Take-All

by Devin McCarthy // Published August 22, 2012

The election of 1824 is most famous for the "corrupt bargain," a deal in the House of Representatives that gave John Quincy Adams the presidency despite his winning fewer popular and electoral votes than Andrew Jackson. But 1824 was also significant for another reason: it was the first election in which the majority of states used a statewide winner-take-all voting method for choosing their presidential electors.

It is a system that now seems like a fundamental part of the American democracy. Presidential candidates compete to win states, which is how they get votes in the Electoral College. The U.S. Constitution does not mandate that system, however. Instead, it is left up to the states to determine how they select their representatives in the Electoral College. For the first 13 presidential elections, spanning the first four decades of the history of the United States, states experimented with many different electoral systems.

The shift to statewide winner-take-all was not done for idealistic reasons. Rather, it was the product of partisan pragmatism, as state leaders wanted to maximize support for their preferred candidate. Once some states made this calculation, others had to follow, to avoid hurting their side. James Madison's 1823 letter to George Hay, described in my earlier post, explains that few of the constitutional framers anticipated electors being chosen based on winner-take-all rules.

The graph below charts the use of each major method of choosing presidential electors during this formative period. An explanation of each system and a timeline of important developments in presidential elections follows.

 

 

At first, state legislatures dominated as the electoral method of choice. Between 1804 and 1820, both statewide and state legislature systems were commonly used, with a small but steady number of states using district-based methods. After 1824, states quickly began conforming to the norm of statewide selection of electors. (Data from pg. 18 of of Delaware's 1966 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the "state unit-vote" system.)

Methods of Choosing Electors:

State Legislature: The legislature of each state chose the presidential electors of the state, giving the people at large no direct vote in presidential elections.

Districts: States were divided into districts, either using pre-existing congressional districts or creating new districts specifically for the presidential election. Voters elected one or multiple electors from their district.

Statewide: The current most common system--voters in a state vote for candidates, and all of that state's electoral votes are cast by electors nominated by the candidate with the most statewide votes.

Hybrid: Some states used a combination of these methods, allocating some electors through the state legislature, some from districts, and/or some from a statewide general ticket. Nebraska and Maine currently use a hybrid of the district and statewide methods.

Other: Various alternate systems were experimented with, including electors from each county choosing the state's electors and runoff elections.

Timeline:

1789: George Washington is the overwhelmingly popular choice to become the first president; just three states allocate electors based on the winner of the statewide popular vote.

1792: State legislatures emerge as the preferred method of selecting presidential electors. George Mason of Virginia defended this method at the Constitutional Convention by arguing that "It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for a chief Magistrate to the people, as it would to refer a trial of colors to a blind man."

1800: Virginia, the state with the most electoral votes, switches to a statewide popular vote system. Winning candidate Thomas Jefferson said of the switch in his home state: "All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general; but while 10 states choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly & worse than folly for the other 6 not to do it." Indeed, Jefferson would have won the 1796 election if two of his strongholds had used winner-take-all. Not wanting to lose an advantage to Virginia, Massachusetts switches to a state legislature system in response, to ensure that all its electoral votes would go to John Adams.

1804: The 12th amendment is ratified, requiring electors to cast a single vote for a presidential ticket rather than casting two votes for their two preferred candidates, with the top finisher becoming president and the runner-up becoming vice-president. The number of states using statewide and state legislature systems is equal for the first time.

1812: The number of states using statewide models decreases and the number using state legislature systems increases, suggesting that the latter might ultimately win out. A substantial number of states continue to use a district-based model.

1820: An equal number of states use statewide and state legislature methods for the second time. This is the last election in which state legislatures played a dominant role. By this point, political parties have become entrenched and the electors of the Electoral College can no longer realistically claim to be independent. After the election, James Madison proposes a constitutional amendment that would require states to use the district method, writing that "The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted; & was exchanged for the general ticket & the legislative election, as the only expedient for baffling the policy of the particular States which had set the example."

1824: The tipping point election for presidential electoral systems, as twice as many states used the winner-take-all statewide method as used the state legislature method. The defeated Andrew Jackson joined James Madison's pleas for a constitutional amendment requiring a uniform district election system, but to no avail. In every U.S. presidential election since, the statewide method has been predominant.

1836: All but one state, South Carolina, uses the winner-take-all method based on the statewide popular vote to choose its electors. South Carolina continues to have its legislature choose electors until after the Civil War.

1872: For the first time, every state holds a popular vote election for president, and all use the statewide winner-take-all rule. In 1876, Colorado is the last state to have its legislature choose its electors.