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Rutgers expert discusses history of Electoral College, its role in modern politics

Andrew Shankman, graduate program director and a professor in the Department of History at Rutgers—Camden, said the Electoral College was created based on a different understanding of political culture from the 18th century.  – Photo by Courtesy of Andrew Shankman

The original design of the Electoral College is incompatible with the political environment of the U.S. today, said Andrew Shankman, graduate program director and a professor in the Department of History at Rutgers—Camden.

"The Electoral College that was placed into the Constitution and then that was ratified is not what the Electoral College became soon afterwards,” Shankman said. “The 12th Amendment, which was enacted in 1804, really substantially changed the Electoral College, and why it changed is very revealing and significant and might have a lot to do with why we now get frustrated by the Electoral College.”

Before the 12th Amendment, electors were required to cast two votes for president, he said. Whoever received the most votes became president, and whoever received the second most became vice president. 

Shankman said today this would have resulted in former Vice President Joe Biden as president and President Donald J. Trump as vice president. He said this seems strange to think about since society in the 18th century had fundamentally different assumptions concerning the way political culture works.

The founders believed that a republic should pursue a single, unifying public good, he said. They reasoned that those running for president would all be virtuous people pursuing the public good, so it would make sense to have the second most supported candidate as vice president.

Shankman said the founders also believed only those of great learning and wealth would have the time and knowledge to understand the public good, as those who were laborers would be too focused on their own needs to reflect on the broader needs of a culture. 

“But none of these values really survived in our modern world,” he said. “We value work. We think in many ways people should be able to think carefully about their interests and then invoke their interests in people in positions of power who will pursue their interests for them.”

The idea of political parties were seen by the founders as contrary to the spirit of the public good and therefore were not considered as a possibility, Shankman said. Without parties, it was assumed that no one would likely receive a majority in the Electoral College, and the decision would go to the House of Representatives.

Despite these beliefs, he said political parties quickly formed from deep divisions in the U.S., and large organized voter blocks formed around certain parties, making it clear that a party leader would likely get a majority. With partisanship becoming the driving force of American politics, leaders decided to change the Electoral College with the 12th Amendment so electors would cast one vote each for the president and vice president.

Shankman said that in doing so, government officials acknowledged that American politics would no longer be driven by an 18th century, gentlemanly sense of a unifying public good, but rather by democratic conflict and competition.

“At that point the Electoral College begins to make no sense at all,” he said. “If getting the most (popular) votes is what matters, and if you spend all of your time organizing as big of a block of voters as you can behind your position, then what should happen is the person who is the most persuasive should win. So in 1804, they kind of merged together two things that don't fit together.”

The Electoral College persists because it is part of the Constitution and removal would require a difficult amendment process, Shankman said. As long as there is a sizable minority party that thinks its interests are served by the Electoral College, such as the Republican Party with its current popular vote disadvantage, it is hard to remove the institution, he said.

One alternative to removing the Electoral College is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which states pledge their electors to whoever wins the national popular vote, Shankman said. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted the compact, according to an article by NPR.

“The problem with that, though, is that it’s locked for the same reason there won’t be an amendment,” he said. “There are enough states, and at this point, Republican states think that they have a better shot at winning with the Electoral College, so probably they won’t enter into that compact.”

Another way to reduce the impact of the Electoral College is to dramatically increase the number of members of the House of Representatives, which would require only a federal law, Shankman said. The population has grown from approximately 100 million in 1929 to 330 million, but the size of the House has not changed with it, meaning the Electoral College also remains unchanged.

“There's only the total number of 538 electoral votes there, that means that the vote of a Californian (or other resident of a large state) begins to become fractionally less … than the vote of a person from Wyoming (or another small state) every year, and the big states are continually being shortchanged,” Shankman said.

While increasing the number of the representatives in the House would not completely remove the possibility of the electoral and popular vote diverging, it would greatly lessen the likelihood by creating more electoral votes distributed by population, he said.

Shankman said he believes this change would be fundamentally more democratic since the U.S. is much larger and more diverse than it was in 1929. The idea that no one person has more say than any other means that being able to persuade a majority is meaningful and powerful, he said.

In order to best serve the interests of the public, Shankman said leaders should work to ensure each vote is equally valued in the democratic process. 

“(As a politician) you've got to go out and you have to explain yourself clearly and truthfully, and then you have to be able to see whether your ideas will resonate with the people you need to persuade,” he said. “Measuring that is how you measure whether you have the right to speak on behalf of the people.”

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