One of the most common criticisms of plans to modify or eliminate the Electoral College is that to do so would be to deviate from the wisdom of the Founders of the American political system. But the “Father of the Constitution” himself, James Madison, was never in favor of our current system for electing the president, one in which nearly all states award their electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner. He ultimately backed a constitutional amendment to prohibit this practice. As historian Garry Wills wrote of our fourth president, “as a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer.” Yet, when he helped create the Constitution and when he defended it years after his presidency, Madison repeatedly argued for alternatives to the winner-take-all method of choosing a state’s presidential electors. Like other leaders of that time, he looked at the world with clear eyes and learned from experience, unafraid to support change when that change made sense.
The question of how the president should be elected was a hotly contested issue at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Numerous systems were proposed and discarded before a final decision was reached. The fault lines in the debate lay between two cross-cutting divisions among the states at the Convention: one between large and small states, and one between slave-owning and free states. It was this latter split that ended up being most salient in the Electoral College debate. The College’s primary purpose was not to give small states greater representation, as is often claimed by its defenders today. Instead, the Electoral College was created to reflect the political realities associated with accommodating the institution of slavery into our electoral system. Under a direct election system, the southern states would be at a significant disadvantage because their slaves could not vote. Through the Electoral College and the Three-Fifths Compromise, however, partially counting the slaves when determining the number of presidential electors allowed southern states to rival the electoral power of their northern brethren.
More broadly, the right to vote in that era was not an established value and was never affirmed in the Constitution. As a result, disparities between a state’s population and its eligible voters varied widely. Pennsylvania had relatively expansive suffrage rights, for example, and Massachusetts did not. Because a national popular vote would pool every state’s votes together on an equal basis, delegates from limited suffrage states opposed a direct election of the president. Madison expressed his preference for a national popular vote for president in a speech at the Convention, however, arguing that “the people at large was…the fittest ” to choose an executive. Although he recognized that such a system would put southern states, including his native Virginia, at a major electoral disadvantage, Madison believed that “local considerations must give way to the general interest,” and he was “willing to make the sacrifice” of his state’s political power for the good of the American democracy. His fellow Southerners had no interest in such political martyrdom, though, and Madison was forced to support the Electoral College as a compromise.