Federalist 68: The Mode of Electing the President

As I re-publish these Federalist paper posts, it’s interesting to reminisce about the events occurring at the time of their initial publishing. I remember publishing this one in the fever of all the pre-election hubbub. It seemed that Americans could think of little else. Today, the mode of electing the president is less on people’s minds, but election integrity is still a pervasive topic. So, with this in mind, let’s review what the founders considered important when establishing the mode of electing the president of the United States.

The United States truly does have one of the most unique and important modes of elections in the world. In fact, the Federalists and supporters of the Constitution were more concerned about the mode of electing the president than even the powers of the president himself. If the citizenry considers the mode of electing illegitimate, no matter what the president does, he and his powers will be considered illegitimate.

It Was The One Topic Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists Agreed Upon

While the Federalists and Anti-Federalists disagreed over many things and felt that their opposition, should they succeed, were opening the door for tyranny and chaos, there was one portion of the Constitution that both parties appeared to agree upon: the mode of electing the President.

Hamilton says this:

“The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.”

In other words, though, at the time, while many of the Constitution’s opponents found fault in the Constitution, the electoral college and mode of electing the president avoided any real critique.

He proceeds to say:

“The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.”

He explains that even the most powerful critique given about the mode of electing the president had to admit that the method was pretty solid. Hamilton agrees with this critique and adds that this method could almost be considered perfect and if not perfect, it’s at least excellent!

The take away from this being: the Constitution’s founders and the Constitution’s enemies agreed that the method for electing the president was about as good as it could get. Hamilton and his fellow Federalists seemed to take a sense of pride in just how good their invention of the electoral college was. They’d had to debate and discuss and deliberate over this issue feverishly during the Constitutional Convention, and, according to them, and their opponents, they’d succeeded.

The Hybrid Compromise

The members of the Constitutional Convention didn’t want a popular election where the emotional, uneducated and—many times irrational—voters would be solely responsible for the election of the president. They also wanted to avoid the popular vote because it would skew the power of the large states against the small states.

But how do you elect a president if not by popular vote’?

The alternative that they’d seen in other countries, that of Congress electing the president, was also unappealing to them. Should Congress have the power to select the executive, they could easily dominate over him—particularly if he was of weak character. And if he was of strong character, he could potentially dominate over Congress.

So, they invented their own hybrid of sorts, attempting to avoid the flaws from both options by creating an intermediary body to exist in the hitherto unoccupied realm between both the mass citizenry and Congress.

Hamilton explains why they believed this method to be the most promising: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations…The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.”

This is a fascinating explanation. The founders felt that, by allowing each state the appoint their own unique and individual electors and vote separately and as each state chose, they could avoid the “violent movements” of the “general mass” and “heats and ferments” which would usually be part of such a grave and important decision.

He continues: “All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes, thus given, are to be transmitted to the seat of the national government, and the person who may happen to have a majority of the whole number of votes will be the President.”

Simple as that. In other words, Hamilton is saying: “In the same way that we have broken the government apart into various branches and governments to counteract each other’s ambition, we’re going to break apart the very mode of electing the president and delegate it to each individual state to handle.” Each state will select a few people who will vote for a presidential candidate and likely, each state will elect someone they feel will best help their state, creating yet another system predicated on ambition counter-acting ambition.

The founders fully expected and predicted that each state would select someone different and unique to their state. This means rarely would the initial election result in a clear majority winner. Hamilton proceeds to explain and justify what happens in this scenario.

“But as a majority of the votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office.”

As you can see here, the House of Representatives is Constitutionally equipped to solve any electoral disputes. This is because, since the founders didn’t want popular election or Congressional election, their hybrid method gave them a little of both. The House of Representatives, filled with members from every state, large and small, could then have their say on the presidential candidates should no clear majority winner emerge—thereby thoroughly vetting the candidate, and thoroughly representing the people while still avoiding the mass irrationality of the people.

Such Mode of Election Should Produce a Man of High Character

He predicted then that: “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications…It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue.”

And of course, this was their goal, was it not? They wanted to avoid the citizenry irrationally electing a dictator (can someone say Hitler?) or Congress electing a puppet. The electoral college was established to guarantee the election of a virtuous and well-equipped individual.

The founders were almost completely confident in the system they created because both sides were completely confident in it.

And, were they wrong? Have we ever elected a dictator? We may have elected individuals who were less than ideal, who did not possess all of the traits necessary to be considered virtuous and competent, but they were never worse than that. That is partly due to our system of checks and balances, but it also due to the electoral college and the fact that it doesn’t allow for the citizenry to irrationally throw anyone into office based off of a temporary or emotional whim.

It truly has stood the testament of time. It has been tested and has been found true. Every president has served and left.

These cries and calls to abolish this system are baseless and naive, stemming from emotion rather than rational thought. There’s a reason the masses can’t directly influence the election—-and the baseless cries to extinguish this “mode of voting” demonstrate the very reason why.

The Liberty Belle

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