Alexander Keyssar

Sep 17, 2020

Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

Harvard University Press 2020

The title of Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar,’s new book poses the question that comes up every presidential election cycle: Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (Harvard University Press, 2020). Keyssar presents the reader with a deep, layered, and complex analysis not only of the institution of the Electoral College itself, drawing out how it came about at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but of the many attempts over more than two centuries to reform it or get rid of it. This is an historical subject with keenly contemporary relevance, as we move into the final stretch of the 2020 election cycle, and we consider how the political landscape, party platforms, and the shape of the presidential race all look the way they do because of the Electoral College. Keyssar unpacks the discussions and debates at the Constitutional Convention about how to elect a president, and then dives into the immediate response to the Electoral College as it was implemented in the new system.

In going through the history of the Electoral College itself, and the points of contention between the popular vote tallies and the Electoral College results, as well as the many, many attempts to reform or eliminate the Electoral College, Keyssar highlights the two points in American political history when we came closest to doing away with this means of electing the president. The Era of Good Feeling (1815-1825)—when there was really only one functioning party, and the party system itself was in flux as party competition shifted—saw a significant effort to revise the Electoral College and the contingent election system that had been used when no candidate received a majority of the votes and the House of Representatives must designate a winner. Keyssar also maps out the efforts in the 1960s and early 1970s to pass an amendment to the Constitution to replace the Electoral College with direct popular vote. This legislation was filibustered in the Senate by senior Southern Democratic and Dixiecrat senators who saw the disproportional voice that the Electoral College gave to the Southern states—states where the Black vote had been significantly diminished because of regulations and threats that made it extraordinarily difficult and dangerous for African Americans to vote. Keyssar explains that this was known as the “5/5 rule”—in contrast to the 3/5th rule in the Constitution—whereas the southern states were able to count all Black citizens are part of their populations and preclude all of them from voting.

Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College also traces the internal shifts within the states as they moved from their initial approach to the distribution of electoral college votes to the establishment of the “unit rule” or “general ticket” that allocates all of a state’s electoral college votes to the winner in that particular state. Not only have there been attempts to amend the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College, but there is a long history of the efforts to reform or eliminate the general ticket/unit rule. Keyssar brings the reader forward to the contemporary period through a number of different threads as he outlines multiple dimensions of reform attempts and their failure, all while providing the reader with a deep history of debate about the structure and function of the Electoral College. This unique aspect of the American constitutional system also reflects the continuing impact of the role of race in American politics and political institutions. For those interested, curious, or confused, this book is truly a tour de force on the Electoral College.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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