Reality Check: the Evolution of the Way We Elect our President

by Neal Suidan // Published April 23, 2010

As I mentioned in my last post on presidential elections, “proponents of the system today rely on support for the current version of the Electoral College because it is the way that it is and the way that is has been.” But… it isn’t. The way we elect our president has been a continually developing process over the years since our nation’s formation. 

In 1789, only three states used our current method: allocation of electors to the statewide popular vote winner. In our fourth presidential election, that number was just two. Many states didn’t even have elections, and others used various other methods to allocate their electors.

In the founding days of our republic, each elector placed two unspecified votes with the top vote-getter becoming president and the runner-up becoming vice president. In the 1796 election, enough of John Adams’ backers withheld their vote for his vice-presidential running mate Thomas Pinckney that Adams’ main opponent, Thomas Jefferson, finished second and became vice-president.

With that debacle in mind, in the election of 1800 every Democratic-Republican backer of Thomas Jefferson also voted for Aaron Burr. But that had the unintended consequence of a tie vote between them for the presidency. The U.S. House took days to finally elect Jefferson. So in 1804, less than 16 years after the Constitution was ratified, the 12th amendment was passed, requiring electors to differentiate a vote for president from a vote for vice president.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that the “winner-take-all rule” based on popular vote elections became the norm. But as recently as 1876, Colorado decided not to use a popular vote to allocate electoral votes. States now at least all hold elections. And of course, our system no longer restricts voting to white, land-owning men with suffrage rights having been expanded. 

The winner-take-all rule was not adopted for noble reasons. When a few states decided to allocate their votes this way, it became a detriment to the political leanings of other states to split their electors and thus have their leading party’s electoral power diluted. The current system developed by nothing less than partisan gamesmanship and fears of underrepresentation. 

States are now basically trapped by those same considerations. But under the Constitution, states have plenary (absolute) power to decide how to apportion their electoral votes. It is therefore not only the right of states, but also their duty to correct the system if it is broken. And as FairVote reports makes abundantly clear in its reports, like Presidential Election Inequality, it is broken.

States now have a real chance to take action. The biggest push to improve our electoral system today is the National Popular Vote movement, with a bill introduced in all 50 states. If this bill passes legislatures in enough states to represent a majority of the Electoral College, those states would award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, thus deciding the election for the candidate with the most national votes and establishing a system in which every vote is equal.

So far, the NPV plan has passed in five states representing 61 electoral votes, with legislation up for vote in the coming months in other key states. It could be law as soon as 2012.