Saturday, November 12, 2016

What was the purpose of the electoral college? One idea.

I've been seeing many comments about the purpose behind the electoral college. These include "The point of the electoral college is to ensure the entire country has a voice not just highly populated area," and, "The purpose of the electoral collage is to ensure that we don't elect dictators," and others. It seems to be a bit of a puzzle, since there is not any reason cited by the electoral college creators as to why that system was to be implemented.

While I don't know that any of these are the point of the electoral college, it is easy to think it might be, an outcome of it. However, I think part of the answer lies in how the electoral college apportions the number of electors: one elector for each legislator (with modifications due to the cap on the total number of Representatives). It's with this latter cap on the total number of Representatives (and thus on the number of electors) that the electoral college sets up an additional relative preference for small population states over large population states. And it's based on this rationale that it makes sense that the electoral college could have been set up to ensure that less-populated areas have their voice heard.
But there's one other, historical, point:

A direct vote would have been opposed by Southern states, because slaves couldn't vote. However, creating a separate body of electors, whose numbers would be equivalent to the size of the state's Congressional delegation would be bolstered by the 3/5th compromise. Why? Let's work backwards from how the apportionment of electors is decided. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides no rationale for the creation of an electoral college, but does explain how to apportion the number of electors:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.
We know that the number of senators is defined at two senators per state (Article I, Section 3), regardless of population. And we know that the number of Representatives is defined based on the number of people in the state (and potentially limited, based on an overall cap of Representatives at 435). However, things were originally a bit different, as explained in Article I, Section 2:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Now, this determination of "all other Persons" is a nice way of saying "slaves," since indentured servants were still considered to be free for purposes of counting the population. This means that the size of the House of Representatives delegation is determined by this basic formula:

# Representatives = # free persons - # untaxed Indians + (3/5 x #slaves)

And the number of electors is determined by the following basic formula:

# Electors = 2 Senators + #Representatives
Or - through substitution:

# Electors = 2 Senators + # free persons - #untaxed Indians + (3/5 x #slaves)

And - like many things in the history of a nation -the system continued through to this day, since it wasn't deemed to be explicitly connected to slavery, nor was it seen to be in need of repair, and it could easily be rationalized to fit a variety of purposes (as seen in the two posted above). However, when one encounters a variety of explanations about the origins or purposes of a thing (such as the purpose behind the 2nd Amendment), such explanations are more than likely to amount to just-so stories, and so a little bit of additional digging ought to happen, especially when the variety of popular explanations either make no sense in combination, conflict with each other, or are in conflict with other parts of the system. Therefore, it appears (at least to me) that the electoral college was set up to ensure that the states with lower populations of freemen would maintain a greater level of control in the early republic.

Note, though, that this is my own hypothesis. I'm not an historian, and I don't have any proof, but we do know that the 3/5th compromise was introduced to ensure that the South had a "sufficient" number in their Congressional delegation. And the electoral college is apportioned, based heavily on the size of the Congressional delegation.

This doesn't mean to say that the electoral college is "pro-slavery" or "racist" or anything like that. It is, though, a relic of a past time in our nation's history, when the calculus of federal representation rested on counting each slave as 3/5 of a person.