As we try to make sense of the results of the 2016 presidential election, many people are looking at the Electoral College and asking why we have this system. After all, it seems that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.
So, why do we operate on a system other than a direct democracy?
One popular argument is that the Founding Fathers simply did not trust the voting populace to be informed. While that argument made sense in the late 18th century when information was local and not easily accessible, that argument died in the election of 1800 with the rise of the national party system and the 12th Amendment.
So what happened?
We can look back to the convention in Philadelphia for our answers, as Virginian James Madison pointed out that the divide between Northern and Southern states made direct election impossible. “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes,” Madison explained.
The problem, then, was that the South could not count the slave population for their votes because slaves could not vote. But because of the three-fifths compromise, they could count their slave population when determining representation in Congress and in the Electoral College, thereby giving the South more political power.
In late 1803, Massachusetts Congressman Samuel Thatcher complained that “the representation of slaves adds thirteen members to this House in the present Congress, and eighteen Electors of President and Vice President at the next election.”
And yet for over two centuries, this is the system we still use to elect our president.