(WHTM) — On this day in 1789, the Electoral College met for the first time. To the surprise of absolutely no one, they elected George Washington to be President of the United States, with John Adams as Vice President.

(Washington would be the first president under the newly ratified Constitution. There were eight presidents under the Articles of Confederation. But I digress.)

Since then the Electoral College has stirred up a lot of controversy, generally reaching an apex once every four years. Some complain it throttles democracy by allowing the loser of the popular vote to become president. This has happened five times, most recently in 2000 and 2016. Others consider it an important check on “mob rule.” And a lot of people ask why have an Electoral College at all, if it’s going to be nothing more than a rubber stamp? (The “faithless elector” is a very rare occurrence, and is prohibited in a lot of states.)

Over the years more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform the Electoral College, or eliminate it by Constitutional amendment-more than any other subject.

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So why did the framers of the Constitution come up with the Electoral College in the first place?

Well, to be annoyingly pedantic about it, they didn’t. The Constitution refers to “Electors”; the term “Electoral College” doesn’t show up in federal law until 1845. But the concept of using electors to choose the President was, as with many parts of the Constitution, a compromise achieved after much acrimonious bickering, and it tied into another compromise that has sullied the reputation of the Founding Fathers ever since, or at least from 1865 on.

Having just come off a war to break away from an inflexible monarch, and royally appointed governors who could shut down colonial governments at will, the framers of the Constitution were leary of creating an executive with too much power. Obviously this meant a President who had to face the will of the people at regular intervals. But how best to elect this person?


  • popular vote;
  • election by the Congress, the way the British Prime Minister is selected by the House of Commons;
  • something else.

Some of the delegates opposed the election-by-Congress option, feeling that would make “backroom politics” and corruption a sure thing.

Others opposed the popular vote idea, saying voters, especially in rural areas, couldn’t be fully informed about candidates. They also feared “mob rule”, especially with a demagogic president leading them on.

That left the “something else” — independent electors, appointed by the states, to cast the actual ballots for president. The number of electors for each state would be determined by tallying up the number of delegates to the House of Representatives, plus the two senators. The method of choosing electors is left to the states, though the Constitution includes one caveat, namely that “no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

(Electors are also prohibited from all gathering at a central location to vote, to avoid back room horse trading and log rolling. Traditionally, electors vote at their respective state capitals.)

Now here’s where things get ugly.

By tying the number of electors to the number of representatives from a state, the Electoral College was also tied into the infamous “three-fifth compromise.” There were many more potential voters (that is to say, property owning white males) in the Northern states than in the more rural South. But the South had a huge population of slaves, about 40% of the population. Southern states wanted slaves to be counted in full when calculating representation. Northern states, in turn, argued that since slaves were property, they didn’t need to be counted for representation.

See, I told you it would get ugly…

The three-fifth compromise stated slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining the number of representatives. By extension, this meant it would determine the number of electors from each state. It was an ugly compromise over an even uglier situation, but without it, the Southern states might well have balked, the Constitutional Convention would have fallen apart, and the states would either have had to go back to the virtually unworkable Articles of Confederation, or (worst case scenario) give up on this whole “United States” idea and go their own ways.

So what will become of the Electoral College? Odds are nothing will change any time soon. Abolishing the Electoral College would require a Constitutional Amendment. A two-thirds majority vote in Congress is required to send an amendment to the states, and a yes vote by either three-quarters of the state legislatures, or state ratifying conventions. So love it or hate it, the Electoral College will probably be around for some time to come.