Shaping the Electoral College, Part XIII

By Rodney Dodsworth, Sept 16, 2019

September 5th, 1787—George Mason prefers the government of Prussia.

As we know, the Convention adjourned on September 17th and forwarded the draft Constitution to Congress. At this late stage, September 5th, delegates were rapidly filling-in the Constitution’s various powers and limits. It’s all the more amazing they still squirmed over how to elect a President. Tempers flared.

In their quest to craft a suitable presidential election mode, the delegates failed once again; they ended the day where they began:

The executive power of the U. S. shall be vested in a single person. His stile shall be “The President of the U. S. of America” and his title shall be “His Excellency.” He shall be elected by ballot by the Legislature. He shall hold his office during the term of seven years; but shall not be elected a second time.

Debate returned to the report from the Committee of Eleven, composed of one delegate from each state. The committee recommended unlimited four-year presidential terms, a Vice President to preside over the Senate, and an electoral college with state-derived electors allocated by Congressional representation. In the event of no majority winner in the electoral college, the Senate would immediately vote to appoint the president from among the top five nominees.

Charles Pinckney (SC) renewed his opposition to this mode of election, which would surely end up in the Senate almost every time. Considering the vice-president stood watch over the Senate, he feared a combined executive branch and Senate running roughshod over the House of Representatives. Others feared a quasi-aristocracy. Considering the already enormous power of this small body, starting with only twenty-six members, additional power over presidential elections was just too much to accept. Since thirteen members comprised a quorum to do business in the first Senate, a bare majority of only seven men could conceivably make Presidents!

George Mason (VA) agreed with Pinckney and predicted the near-certainty of reelection for sitting Presidents. Given the closeness between the Senate and a President, together they could subvert the Constitution. To avoid this, he motioned to strike “if such number be a majority of that of the electors” from the clause.

Instead he proposed, “The Person having the greatest number of votes shall be the President.” To keep presidential elections entirely out of the Senate and Congress, Mason proposed a plurality winner! We can only guess today at the possible ramifications of a plurality president. Would it spawn more than two significant political parties? Would the nation come to regard plurality v. majority presidents as less worthy of respect? Would it prevent the two subsequent major parties from corrupting the electoral college process?

We’ll never know, because despite neutralizing the problems involving senatorial elections, Mason’s motion failed big, 10-1.

For the rest of the day’s frustrating debates, delegates resumed old arguments and fears.

Wilson’s motion to empower the entire Congress with presidential elections failed 7-3-1.

Another motion to keep Congress out and allow plurality presidents failed 9-2.

Elbridge Gerry (MA) motioned six Senators and seven Congressmen be selected by joint ballot to elect the President.

Roger Sherman (CN), a very reasoned man who proposed what evolved into the Connecticut Compromise that established state equality in the Senate, threatened to walk out and give up the plan, the Constitution.

Mason let lose a blast. He “would prefer the Government of Prussia,” rather than accept the aristocratic plan in front of him.

VA Governor Edmund Randolph cast doubts on the entire draft Constitution when he expressed fear of an eventual monarchy working with an aristocratic Senate.

Whatever the final system, the small states must have some say, some measure of input to protect themselves. But James Wilson (PA) and James Madison (VA) fairly ignored the small state interest when they respectively proposed to replace the role of the Senate with the Congress, or perhaps with the mass of the people.

Despite today’s failures and discord, the Convention actually noodled its way toward a solution. Framing the discussion were a few accepted principles and requirements to help guide the delegates. To avoid an eventual monarchy, delegates considered and rejected service limited only by good behavior. To encourage the service of talented men, yet not risk monarchy, the convention decided on short, multiple terms.

Third, the president mustn’t be the tool of any standing body, a house of Congress, or the states. He must be responsible to the people yet not be like a weather-vane reacting to their every shifting passion. While it would appear that state-derived electors invited cabal and intrigue, delegates knew from experience the lack of coordination among the states under the Articles of Confederation, this was a remote possibility.

So far, while the Framers’ kept their electoral college uncorrupted, it was doubtful the isolated electors would independently elect a majoritarian winner. Convention delegates from large and small states alike accepted large state domination of the electoral college, in what they expected to be an institution that typically nominated candidates.

But, in the actual election, the small states demanded influence. While turning the election over to the Senate appeared to satisfy this requirement, the problems associated with that small, powerful, aristocratic body caused delegates to pause and reconsider. Again.


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