Claremont Review of Books

The Electoral College by Dawn’s Early Light

Distinguished Fellow
Voters are seen at a polling place at Varnell gymnasium on January 5, 2021 in Dalton, Georgia, USA
Voters are seen at a polling place at Varnell gymnasium on January 5, 2021 in Dalton, Georgia, USA

Consider this stirring account of democratic progress:

__At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a proposal to elect the president of the United States by national popular vote—though initially favored by James Madison, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris—fell flat with most of the delegates. Instead, they adopted a complex, hasty, last-minute compromise no one was enthusiastic about: presidential election by state electors. This system came to be called the Electoral College.

Ever since, the arc of history has been bending toward the national popular vote but never quite getting there. Time and again, far-sighted statesmen have advanced sensible reforms to fix the Electoral College and make our presidential elections more democratic. Time and again, their reforms have attracted wide support but have been thwarted by venal or partisan calculations, misunderstandings, or sheer inertia.

Yet, the expansion of American democracy has always proceeded in fits and starts: the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of African Americans and women, the popularly elected Senate, the “one man, one vote” rule for legislative apportionment. Today, replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote (NPV) is our rendezvous with history, the momentous next step for bringing our political institutions into line with our democratic ideals.__

That is the narrative of two recent books on electing the president. Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? by Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is the most thorough study of our Electoral College debates ever written. Let the People Pick the President by Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, is more selective and journalistic. Both books are serious histories, replete with drama and instruction. They defy today’s progressive conceit that we can “cancel” history and fashion the world all on our own. But they make the converse mistake of trying to settle a living debate with a romantic plotline.

Read the full review in Claremont Review of Books