One of the most common criticisms of plans to modify or eliminate the Electoral College is that to do so would be to deviate from the wisdom of the Founders of the American political system. But the "Father of the Constitution" himself, James Madison, was never in favor of our current system for electing the president, one in which nearly all states award their electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner. He ultimately backed a constitutional amendment to prohibit this practice.
As historian Garry Wills wrote of our fourth president, "as a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer." Yet, when he helped create the Constitution and when he defended it years after his presidency, Madison repeatedly argued for alternatives to the winner-take-all method of choosing a state's presidential electors. Like other leaders of that time, he looked at the world with clear eyes and learned from experience, unafraid to support change when that change made sense.
Madison at the Constitutional Convention
The question of how the president should be elected was a hotly contested issue at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Numerous systems were proposed and discarded before a final decision was reached. The fault lines in the debate lay between two cross-cutting divisions among the states at the Convention: one between large and small states, and one between slave-owning and free states.
It was this latter split that ended up being most salient in the Electoral College debate. The College's primary purpose was not to give small states greater representation, as is often claimed by its defenders today. Instead, the Electoral College was created to reflect the political realities associated with accommodating the institution of slavery into our electoral system. Under a direct election system, the southern states would be at a significant disadvantage because their slaves could not vote. Through the Electoral College and the Three-Fifths Compromise, however, partially counting the slaves when determining the number of presidential electors allowed southern states to rival the electoral power of their northern brethren.
More broadly, the right to vote in that era was not an established value and was never affirmed in the Constitution. As a result, disparities between a state's population and its eligible voters varied widely. Pennsylvania had relatively expansive suffrage rights, for example, and Massachusetts did not. Because a national popular vote would pool every state's votes together on an equal basis, delegates from limited suffrage states opposed a direct election of the president.
Madison expressed his preference for a national popular vote for president in a speech at the Convention, however, arguing that "the people at large was...the fittest " to choose an executive. Although he recognized that such a system would put southern states, including his native Virginia, at a major electoral disadvantage, Madison believed that "local considerations must give way to the general interest," and he was "willing to make the sacrifice" of his state's political power for the good of the American democracy. His fellow Southerners had no interest in such political martyrdom, though, and Madison was forced to support the Electoral College as a compromise.
Early Changes to Presidential Elections
That compromise in its original form only lasted 17 years. Initially, each elector was given two votes to cast. The candidate with a majority of electoral votes would become president and the candidate with the second most votes would become vice-president. Political parties quickly formed, however, and as Jack Nagel has pointed out, the system worked too much like approval voting-in which voters can vote to "approve" of as many candidates on the ballot as they like-to be viable in contested elections . In the 1796 election, this rule led to winner John Adams having the awkward situation of serving with his leading opponent Thomas Jefferson as vice-president rather than his desired running mate Charles Pinckney. Some Adams voters did not want Pinckney to defeat Adams for the presidency and enough of them voted for other candidates with their second vote to allow Jefferson to finish second.
The 1800 election was even more problematic, with Jefferson receiving the same number of votes as his de facto running mate Aaron Burr, as each of Jefferson's electors also voted for Burr to avoid an outcome like that of 1796. The result was a highly controversial vote for president in the House, with Burr deciding to seek the presidency and aligning himself with Jefferson's political opponents. Jefferson was eventually elected, but not before many days of stalemate and much backroom negotiation.
The messy process in the 1800 election widely discredited the original Electoral College rules that allowed such an event to occur. In particular, it was agreed that the rule that electors would vote for two candidates, which led to perverse outcomes tied to tactical voting, had to be changed. Willing to learn from its experiences, the founding generation moved to change the Constitution before the 1804 election, and the 12th amendment established that each elector would cast one electoral vote for a ticket of a president running with a vice-president.
The Selection of Presidential Electors in the Early Years
Neither the Constitution nor the 12th amendment, however, restricted states in any way on what rules they might choose to select the president. In our early years, states indeed were adventurous and open to experimentation. Massachusetts, for one, modified its method of awarding electors for every presidential election until 1824.
Of the three most common rules for choosing a state's electors, the most widely used initially was appointment by the state legislature, which avoided a popular vote entirely. Madison did not like this system, as he worried that allowing state legislatures to elect the president would give the state and national legislatures too much power over the executive branch.
A second option was for voters in an electoral district to elect one or more presidential electors for that district. Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee each used this method for many of the first presidential elections. Other states used hybrid systems in which most electors were chosen by district voting but a few were selected based on the statewide vote or appointed by the state legislature. Some states used already-existing congressional districts for this process, while others created new districts specifically for the purpose of selecting presidential electors.
The third system was for all electors to be elected on a winner-take-all basis in a statewide vote, so that every elector in a state would likely vote for the same candidate. States quickly realized that this last method maximized the advantage they could give to their preferred candidate. In 1800, only two states used this system. By Madison's election to the presidency in 1808, six states used the statewide system, and by 1836 it was implemented by every state but South Carolina, which continued to appoint electors until after the Civil War. Today, 48 of 50 states allocate all of their electors to the winner of the statewide vote (the remaining two, Maine and Nebraska, select some electors by district voting and two by statewide voting).
Madison's Proposed Amendment
In 1823, Madison wrote a remarkable letter to George Hay explaining his views of the Electoral College, his strong opposition to states voting as winner-take-all blocs and his view of the origins of the winner-take-all rule. In addition to disenfranchising districts that voted against the preference of the state, Madison worried that statewide voting would increase sectionalism and the strength of geographic parties. He wrote that his views were widely shared by others at the Constitutional Convention, and that the winner-take-all approach had been forced on many states due to its adoption in other states: "The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted; & was exchanged for the general ticket [e.g., winner-take-all rule] & the legislative election, as the only expedient for baffling the policy of the particular States which had set the example."
Madison also discerned that the winner-take-all rule did not actually help small states. When the Constitution was drafted, small states were expected to be helped by the law stating that each state has one vote for president when the election went to the House (as it had had in 1800 and would again in 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected over the more popular Andrew Jackson). Many Founders anticipated that such outcomes would become routine - meaning the electors would limit the field to three choices that the House would choose among, voting on the basis of one vote per state. George Mason, for one, predicted in 1787 that "nineteen times in twenty" there would be no winner of a majority of electoral votes and the president would be chosen in the House.
Madison saw this provision as highly problematic, however: "The present rule of voting for President by the H. of Reps. is so great a departure from the Republican principle of numerical equality, and even from the federal rule which qualifies the numerical by a State equality, and is so pregnant also with a mischievous tendency in practice, that an amendment of the Constitution on this point is justly called for by all its considerate & best friends."
He recognized that small states would object to removing this provision, however, so he suggested twinning it with a ban on the winner-take-all rule and requiring the district method. Small states knew they were not helped by the winner-take-all rule that advantaged the most populous states, so removing the rule would make it easier for them to accept Madison's proposal. He wrote: "A constitutional establishment of that mode [district allocation] will doubtless aid in reconciling the smaller States to the other change which they will regard as a concession on their part. "
Madison's proposed amendment in his letter to Hay incorporated this compromise, along with his suggestion that electors would cast a second, backup choice in a manner similar to the idea of instant runoff voting. In the event of there being no majority in the Electoral College, Congress should select the president on the basis of "one member, one vote." He suggested the following language:
"The Electors to be chosen in districts, not more than two in any one district, and the arrangement of the districts not to be alterable within the period of ------ previous to the election of President. Each Elector to give two votes, one naming his first choice, the other his next choice. If there be a majority of all the votes on the first list for the same person, he of course to be President; if not, and there be a majority, (which may well happen) on the other list for the same person, he then to be the final choice; if there be no such majority on either list, then a choice to be made by joint ballot of the two Houses of Congress, from the two names having the greatest number of votes on the two lists taken together."
How Would Madison Change the Electoral System Today?
Madison's arguments for supporting the district method fit the political realities of 1823, but we suspect that if he were alive today, his practical view of the world would have led to his returning to his original views of the best way to elect the executive: that is, direct election of the president. Given his 1823 letter and the opportunity to observe instant runoff elections in practice, he also would likely have supported allowing voters to indicate backup choices in the event of the need to simulate a runoff election.
The ever-pragmatic Madison would quickly realize that his arguments in favor of a district system instead of a direct election system, as laid out in an 1826 letter to Robert Taylor, would not apply to today's presidential elections. He would see that its extreme bias for one major party in close elections would make it a political nonstarter, just as direct election was a nonstarter for political reasons in 1787.
Madison also would have seen that conditions no longer backed his arguments. For instance, he saw an advantage in electors being able to use their better judgment if voters picked a poor candidate. However, electors today are merely rubber stamps for the winners of statewide elections. Madison also thought that voters would be better equipped to choose local electors that they personally know rather than distant national candidates, but voters today are inundated with information about national candidates and would be unlikely to be able to name any of their state's electors. Lastly, Madison hoped that electors would vote for their constituents' second choice if their first choice had no chance of winning. This problem would be much more effectively solved today by using instant runoff voting in a national presidential election. Madison's reasons for supporting the Electoral College late in his career could be used today as powerful arguments to oppose it.
The story of James Madison and the Electoral College illustrates that the College as we know it was not created because the Founders thought it was the ideal way to elect an executive. Instead, it initially developed because of a compromise with slave-owning southern states and other low suffrage stages, and over time moved to winner-take-all rules due to a poorly-considered Constitutional incentive structure that led states to choose systems that furthered their own partisan preferences over fairly representing the views of the people. Those concessions hardly should govern our decisions today about how to choose the president in light of the current state of American politics and our current views about the right to vote.
Attempts to defend the Electoral College based on the fact that it was introduced by brilliant political thinkers such as Madison fail to appreciate the unique political context in which it was created and the fundamental differences between that time and ours. As Madison said of the presidential election system in 1830 and would likely say again today, "a solid improvement of it is a desideratum that ought to be welcomed by all enlightened patriots."
The section involving options for Electoral College districts was updated June 19, 2012.