Op-Ed: Even the Founders hated the electoral college

The electoral college has been an anachronism for over a century. If by some miracle we could bring the Founding Fathers back via time machine, they would almost to a man express surprise that we still elect presidents using the weirdly complicated, state-based framework they invented during the late summer of 1787. The electoral college is the sour note within the otherwise artful song called the Constitution, and it has produced grimaces and groans from generations of American students, outright bewilderment from the rest of the world and programmed political chaos in the 2020 election.

This institutional albatross is the product of a compromise reached in mid-to-late August of 1787 between the two competing factions at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: the nationalists, who sought to replace the state-based government under the Articles of Confederation with a sovereign federal government; and the confederationists, who preferred modest reform of the Articles that left domestic policy in the hands of the states. The electoral college replicated the Great Compromise reached in July that gave the nationalists popular representation in the House, and the confederationists representation in the Senate. The disproportionate advantage that small states enjoyed in the Senate was thereby embedded in the electoral college.

Neither side was happy with the split-the-difference solution. James Madison, the preeminent nationalist, wrote (in code) to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, lamenting that the Great Compromise and the electoral college had finessed the sovereignty question in a way that would come back to haunt posterity. He later claimed that the electoral college was a shoddy piece of work, done while the delegates were worn out, wanted to go home, and that its obvious flaws would, so he hoped, be corrected by subsequent constitutional amendments.

Madison’s desire for a fix have not gone wanting for lack of effort. The most informed student of the subject, Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar, has identified nearly 900 efforts to reverse or abolish the electoral college since 1800. All have failed in part because a constitutional amendment is hard to pass, requiring supermajorities in both branches of Congress and the state legislatures, and in part because different interest groups over the years have mobilized to oppose change for different but always partisan reasons.

The most consistent opponents, not surprisingly, have been the small (in population) states. The Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Vermont and Rhode Island carry additional electoral college weight compared with a population behemoth like California, and some of them remain loath to abandon it.

Otherwise, opponents of reform have tended to speak with a Southern accent: defenders of slavery in the antebellum era, and defenders of racial segregation during the Jim Crow era, all beneficiaries of the state-based advantage in both the Senate and the electoral college. More recently, space has joined race as a factor in providing the Republican Party with electoral-college majorities in the rural Midwest.

It has become received wisdom in the GOP that, given the demographic changes in the population, it cannot win a popular election for the

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