2 November, 2020 • • 45.2HistoryNorth AmericaPolitics

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Narrative History and Electoral Politics

Daniel Sutton

Alexander Keyssar
Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?
Harvard University Press
£28.95 (Hardback)

About eighteen months ago, I was in Washington DC for a conference (on Byzantine Greek history, as it happened). I’d never been before. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and the conference began on Thursday evening, so I had a day to cram in as many of the sights as possible. I had a great day—I started with the Supreme Court, popped by the Library of Congress, visited several of the Smithsonian Museums and got a selfie with Abraham Lincoln. And around midday, while I was enjoying lunch in the underground visitor centre on Capitol Hill, I heard two other British accents on a table to my left. I looked over, and there was an elderly couple peering over a large map, looking rather perplexed. “But where is it?”, the lady asked. “I’m not sure, dear”, the man replied, “But the Electoral College must be on here somewhere.”

Over the next couple of weeks, millions of Britons following the US Presidential Election will hear mention of the Electoral College: the mechanism by which, after the votes are counted, the President is chosen. Each state nominates a certain number of electors: the number of congressional districts they have, plus two for each Senate seat (although it’s not a state, the District of Columbia also gets three electors). These electors are responsible for choosing the president. So, when my co-editor—a US citizen—cast his ballot, he was technically voting not for a particular presidential candidate, but for a representative of their party to be an elector for his state. In 48 out of the 50 states (Maine and Nebraska do things slightly differently), the candidate with the most votes gets all the electors from the state. And those electors each cast a vote for that candidate (or at least, they’ve pledged to do so—someone who votes for a different candidate, which happens occasionally, is referred to as a ‘faithless elector’). 270 votes in the Electoral College gives you a majority, and a majority makes you president. The electors cast their votes in their own states, rather than gathering in a particular place, as my fellow-tourists thought—the Electoral College is the term used to refer to all the electors together.

Now, when these millions hear the Electoral College mentioned, most of them will wonder what on earth it is. Some will google it or ask a friend. Others will nod sagely. A few might try to locate it on a map. But nobody who’s seriously interested in the election will be able to ignore it. For one thing, the Electoral College dictates electoral strategy: states where the race is very tight, like Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, receive extra attention because the winner—however small their margin of victory—takes all of the state’s electoral college votes. More importantly, it’s entirely possible that the candidate who wins the national popular vote might not win in the Electoral College. That happened for the fourth time in 2000, when George Bush Jr beat Al Gore, and then again, much more starkly in 2016. Donald Trump won in the Electoral College with 304 votes to 227, despite receiving 2,870,000 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton nationwide. So, faced with this slightly odd system and its surprising significance, the curious onlooker would be forgiven for asking why the Founding Fathers came up with the Electoral College, and why it’ll still be used in the forthcoming 2020 election.

Enter Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?, written by Alex Keyssar, Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and author of The Right to Vote. As Keyssar puts it in his introduction:

This book is an attempt to explain the survival, the persistence, of this complicated and much-criticized method of electing presidents. Why has the Electoral College endured—despite the hundreds of proposed amendments, scores of congressional hearings, thousands of books and articles, and a growing handful of disputed and unpopular election outcomes. Why has this institution remained unchanged since the early nineteenth century despite its awkward fit with democratic values, the weight of modern public opinion, and its failure to ever function in the deliberative manner envisioned by the framers of the Constitution?

Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? is not an introductory work. It’s a lucid but very detailed 544-page tome. Unless they were particularly avid readers, I don’t think I’d recommend it to the British couple with the map in the Capitol Hill café. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wanted to properly understand the Electoral College—not just what (or indeed, where) it is, but why it is the way it is. But I don’t think even they are the primarily intended readership. Above all, Keyssar’s book is about why we still have the Electoral College—not me, and perhaps not you, but “We the People of the United States”. It’s designed to inform the debate in the US over whether or not it should be reformed, and if so, how that could be achieved. Keyssar states in his introduction that “This study does not directly join contemporary debates about the merits and flaws of the Electoral College”, and—at least until his conclusion—that is essentially true. But Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? is an excellent example of some of the ways history inquiry can serve and enhance such debates. It is not only a masterful narrative history, but a powerful political intervention.

As a narrative history, Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? is deeply rewarding. Its layout is partly chronological, partly by theme. Part One starts with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the debate over how to choose the executive, before looking at early efforts to modify the system which emerged. Part Two traces the various attempts from the 1810s and the 1950s to abolish the “general ticket”: the winner-takes-all arrangement that still prevails in most states today. Part Three tells the story of efforts to replace the Electoral College with a National Popular Vote, starting in the early nineteenth century but focusing on the 1960s and 1970s. Part Four takes the reader from the 1980s to the present day.

The story has something of Forrest Gump about it. It’s fast-paced and unpredictable, filled with odd twists and eccentric characters, and it stumbles into well-known historical episodes with surprising frequency. Few readers will have heard of Birch Bayh, the independent-minded Indiana Senator who masterminded reform efforts in the 1960s and 1970s while continuing to manage the family farm; or of Henry Cabot Lodge and Ed Lee Gossett, the unlikely cross-party double-act who proposed the abolition of Electoral College in 1948. And I doubt many will have previously encountered episodes like the Miner Law: a attempt by Michigan Democrats in the early 1890s to switch their state from winner-takes-all to district elections, which caused a national partisan storm and reached the U.S. Supreme Court. But most readers will recognise the debacle of the tied election in 1800, where the choice of President fell to the House of Representatives (as it would again, if no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College—a process known as ‘contingent procedure’). They’ll recall the exceedingly-close Nixon-Kennedy election of 1960—featuring faithless electors and tiny margins in swing states—which proved the catalyst for reform proposals in the 1960s. And they’ll enjoy appearances from plenty of familiar characters: Martin Van Buren cynically supporting a federal amendment for district elections; Jimmy Carter endorsing a National Popular Vote as President; and John Lewis arguing in 1979 that the Electoral College system was the “one major kind of disenfranchisement” remaining in the South.

As a narrative, the book’s greatest strength is the extent to which it captures such a range of characters’ voices. Keyssar packs the book full of quotes, often of some length. They show how arguments for and against the Electoral College system have ebbed and flowed over the last 200 years, while they drop the reader right into each debate and its context. I was struck, for instance, by the continuation of Lewis’ remarks above:

 With the ‘winner-takes-all’ rule, you can be part of a minority—whether 5 percent or 40 percent—in a state and have your vote thrown away, or really, recast for the winner… That every person’s vote should count the same is one of the fundamental principles which is bedrock in this country. Having won the long and difficult and dangerous struggle to win the right to vote, we cannot now accept the proposition that any one person’s vote can count more than any other.

The extensive quotations also give the narrative its literary flavour. One quote that springs to mind is Estes Kefauver’s claim, following the Kennedy-Nixon election, that “Every four years the Electoral College is a loaded pistol pointed at our system of government. Its continued existence is a game of Russian roulette.” They also add a pinch of emotion and perspective. The depth of Carter’s disillusionment comes across in his remark as co-chair of a federal electoral reform commission in 2001: “It is a waste of time to talk about changing the Electoral College. I would predict that 200 years from now, we will still have the Electoral College.” And Birch Bayh’s admission in June 1979—at the end of his last attempt at reform—articulates one of the perennial obstacles for those who would replace the Electoral College with remarkable frankness. “As strongly as I have pursued this proposal for 10 years, I must say that if anybody while I was back home on July 4 had come up to me and talked to me about direct election instead of inflation, gas rationing, or SALT, I would have thought he was out of his mind.” In the introduction, Keyssar says that his history is unusual because it studies not change but its absence, and I think he is right. But the substance of his narrative is an account of the characters who tried to bring about (or prevent) change. We see both the counterfactuals and the realities which frustrated them from those characters’ perspectives.

Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? is not merely intended as a compelling narrative. Keyssar quietly but firmly subscribes to an idea which many regard as old-fashioned: that those engaged in contemporary politics can learn lessons from history. At the end of the introduction, he approvingly quotes J. Humphrey Dougherty, an early-twentieth century commentator on the Electoral College: “Every attempt to solve the problem must be predicated on the teaching of history.” To be precise, Keyssar sees his book not just as guided by this idea, but to some extent arguing for it. He says he hopes, by the end, the reader will come to appreciate the wisdom of Dougherty’s remark. He thinks of the book, at least in part, as a demonstration of didactic history.

Now, there’s three ways in which a history like Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? might serve a didactic, political purpose. First, it provides raw historical information about the Electoral College’s past, which might inform arguments for or against it. If you wanted to know how many faithless electors there have been, what public opinion polls have said about the Electoral College over the course of the twentieth century, how often those from small states (often held to be uniformly committed to preserving the system) have voted to reform it, or how the term ‘Electoral College’ itself has evolved, then Keyssar’s book—especially its substantial notes and appendices—does the trick. Second, it provides ideas: the historical debates about the Electoral College which Keyssar records and interprets might supply new arguments for the present debate, or present them in different ways. But I think the type of teaching Keyssar has mostly in mind is teaching about patterns. At key moments in the narrative, Keyssar often takes the reader aside to point out patterns. Take, for instance, his summary of the failure of Lodge-Gossett proposal:

In the late 1940s nearly everyone in Congress, as well as a majority of the American people, agreed that the Electoral College was in need of a major overhaul… The fallible and unnecessary network of electors ought to be eliminated; the archaic contingent procedure had to be replaced with something more democratic; the unit rule had severe defects. But in the end—as had so often happened—there was no consensus about the structure or shape of a new electoral system.

This is one, simple example. Keyssar also highlights plenty of other repeated themes: the difficulties of obtaining supermajorities to amend the Constitution, the dwindling of concern outside of election years, states’ fears of losing influence if they abandoned winner-takes-all, and pure partisan interest overriding principled debate, to name a few. But in each case, the aim is the same—to understand why reform efforts failed. Keyssar is by no means diluting the specificity of history: he goes on, in this instance, to explain the particular context of Northern Democrats abandoning the Lodge-Gossett proposal between the Senate and the House votes. He regards these as two different levels of analysis. But the patterns are central to Keyssar’s history—as he notes in the conclusion, “the history recounted here has a Sisyphean air”. The conclusion itself is first and foremost a catalogue of these patterns. That’s what Keyssar wants the reader to remember.

But what’s really interesting is that Keyssar also states in his conclusion, straight afterwards, that there are “other themes and subplots in this story, facts and patterns that may be more encouraging to the reform-minded”. He identifies in his story “an undercurrent of democratic progress”. This cuts right to the heart of that fascinating but unfashionable idea that history can teach us lessons. If there are lessons to be learned, there must be pervasive and precise patterns; but insofar as there’s a purpose to learning about them, it is that they might be overcome. Didactic history rests on this capacity to read one history in two ways at once: as an illustration of continuity, and as inspiration for change.

That said, I think the history of the Electoral College does directly bear on the debate about whether or not it should be reformed—not just instrumentally, but intrinsically. Imagine that the Constitutional Convention was happening again tomorrow, and that it had to decide from scratch how to choose the executive, with no memory of the existing arrangements. Whatever their opinion on maintaining or reforming the Electoral College, almost everyone would agree that it’s highly unlikely this Constitutional Convention would alight on anything resembling the Electoral College system. For those who would defend the Electoral College, then, some of their arguments must be rooted in the past: either the origins of the system, or its continuity since that time, must be attributed some value.

Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? offers a clear and comprehensive treatment of both. First, the origins of the Electoral College. Keyssar argues that in its initial context—devised by what was essentially a mop-up committee, dealing at the end of the summer with problems the Convention hadn’t got around to resolving—it was a clever compromise choice:

At heart, the architecture of the electoral system represented a compromise between those who favoured selection by Congress and those who insisted such a process had fatal flaws. In its composition, the Electoral College was (and is) a temporary replica of Congress populated by ‘electors’ (chosen by the states) who would assemble only once (and in their home states) and who would in effect have no ongoing dealings with the national government… The ingenious stroke of the Committee of Eleven’s proposal was to satisfy the objections of those who opposed legislative selection while still apportioning power and influence to the states according to the same principles that governed representation in Congress.

But that ingenuity masked fundamentally muddled origins. When chosen, as Keyssar puts it, the Electoral College system was little more than an “eleventh-hour compromise by gifted but tired men who had difficulty figuring out how to elect a president and had to bring their work to a close”. At best, it was a “consensus second-choice”. Keyssar also shows that the delegates had wildly different understandings of how the system would work in practice, and that many—James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, for example—had concluded by the 1810s and 1820s that the system was woefully inadequate. The Constitution’s stipulations about Presidential elections are also strikingly short—just this summer, the Supreme Court was forced to rule on whether faithless electors could be fined by their states. However wise and prescient the Framers’ intentions may have been (and the nature of their intentions, as long as originalist interpretations of the Constitution are so prevalent, will continue to be a critical question about the legitimacy of federal institutions) Keyssar shows the Electoral College was no example of wisdom and prescience. It was ambiguous, rushed and swiftly regretted.

Keyssar also argues, as others have before him, that the compromise had much to do with slavery. One reason that many from the Southern states were keen to have the President chosen by Congress or a body like it was in order that the three-fifths compromise might apply in the process, increasing their voting power and thus protecting slave-holder interests. As Keyssar makes clear in a footnote, he does not think this was the primary reason the framers rejected a national popular vote. On this point, his views align more with Sean Wilentz’s than Akhil Reed Amar’s. But he argues that it was nonetheless a highly significant one. And this motivation for the compromise is deeply problematic for anyone trying to appeal to the Electoral College’s origins in their defence of it.

Any argument deriving value from the Electoral College’s continuity has a similar weakness. Keyssar clearly and comprehensively shows that at several junctures, those who worked to preserve the Electoral College did so in order to further slave-holder interests, hinder the civil rights movement, or protect the advantage winner-takes-all gave candidates with predominately white majorities in Southern states. Keyssar also notes that some would-be-reformers sought change for racist reasons: Gossett and his southern allies, for instance, saw proportional elections as a way of diluting northern support for the civil rights movement. But if the historical continuity of the Electoral College is thought to lend it value—as somehow reflecting the cumulative wisdom of the past—then the history Keyssar tells strongly calls that idea into question too.

When I first read Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?, I was slightly surprised by the conclusion—specifically, the last three pages. As I’ve already mentioned, in the introduction Keyssar says that his study does not directly engage in the debate over whether the Electoral College should be reformed. The impression is of a descriptive, rather than a normative exercise (though, as we’ve seen, one which has significant normative implications). And throughout the body of the history, Keyssar follows this principle. He does acknowledge in the introduction that the way the study is framed presupposes that the Electoral College’s survival demands some kind of explanation. And there’s the odd hint he has his doubts about the strength of the arguments against reform (e.g. “a cursory glance at the historical record makes plain that the system has not survived because of the shattering brilliance of the arguments on its behalf”). But when the reader reaches the conclusion, these hints get larger and louder, until on page 378 they culminate in the grand reveal: “[Alternative] conclusions would not be altogether unreasonable, but the history recounted here offers far stronger support for the view that significant changes to the electoral system are both warranted and long overdue”. The last two pages are mostly spent fleshing out this claim.

Personally, I’m quite sympathetic to Keyssar’s viewpoint. But the reader who’s not—or, perhaps even more so, the completely neutral reader trying to make their mind up—might feel like they’ve been tricked. “This isn’t what it said on the tin”, they might say. “I thought this was unbiased, disinterested history, but then—surprise!—there was an agenda all along.” This reaction won’t be helped by the strongly partisan lines along which opinions about the Electoral College are currently drawn. According to the most recent Pew data, 81% of Democrats/Democrat-leaning voters say the constitution should be amended so the candidate who receives the most votes nationwide wins the election, while only 32% of Republicans/Republican-leaning voters agree. In the heat of the current election race, the temptation will be for readers like these to pigeon-hole Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? as one-sided, prejudiced—propaganda, even.

Any such view would be fundamentally misguided. When I reflected on Keyssar’s conclusion, I realised those last three pages weren’t so much a grand reveal as a final inference. Looking back through the 377 pages which precede it, there is no trace of prejudice in the narrative—rather, it is so comprehensive as to practically eliminate selection bias. The opinions and motivations of all parties are recorded even-handedly. The narrative is unmistakably descriptive. But just as Keyssar infers patterns from this narrative, from which he hopes the reform-minded will learn, so he infers that the details of the narrative best cohere with normative arguments against the Electoral College system. The conclusion follows from the history – history of the sort which was promised on the tin.

Now, I grant that Keyssar probably held this normative view of the Electoral College before he wrote the book. I doubt that he wrote the first 377 pages, put his pen down, thought for a while, and then decided for the very first time that, on balance, the Electoral College wasn’t such a great idea. But that does not make his history partisan or prejudiced. The historical method, properly exercised as it is here, is a guard against that. The historian’s process of listening to the sources, arranging them and generalising from them can be done in a minimally normative way (or rather, according to a minimal set of normative conditions). It is a way the historian can to some extent free the narrative from their inclinations. They cannot do so completely, and may justifiably choose not to do so. But when the historical method is pursued thoroughly, they can do so to a considerable degree. And this is what Keyssar does, after which he concludes with a normative evaluation—an evaluation which, importantly, frames his didactic purpose. The descriptive and normative aspects are separated and sequential.

To put it another way, Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College models the virtues of historical writing for political debate. At a time when listening carefully and charitably, laying out the facts comprehensively, and inferring from them cautiously is rare in political discourse, Keyssar’s book is an unambiguous example of those traits. And yet it is also a meaningful political contribution. To assume that the historian cannot do both is to assume that historical methods cannot legitimately be used to draw political conclusions—that if they do, either their work isn’t proper, impartial history, or their political conclusions are unjustified. Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? shows that the historian can do both, and do both well.

Remember the couple on Capitol Hill with the map? I was reminded of them by the final line of the conclusion:

Knowledge of the past can help to free us from its constraints and imagine different futures, but its predictive powers are limited, and for better or worse, we now inhabit truly uncharted political terrain.

I think this sums up Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College? rather well. Keyssar— to borrow his own image—has mapped out the Electoral College’s past in remarkable detail, and in a manner easily navigable. As such, it is of great value to any reader who seriously intends to understand that past. But for the ‘we’ Keyssar addresses in his title—those who will tomorrow rely on the Electoral College for choosing a president once again—the book holds far greater value. No matter who wins the election, the Electoral College will be under unprecedented scrutiny. If Biden wins, the president’s party will be one overwhelmingly opposed to the Electoral College’s existence. If Trump wins, it will almost certainly be via the aid of the Electoral College system—again. The debate will only grow. And Keyssar acknowledges that in such unprecedented circumstances, the historian is of little help in prediction. The future won’t be found on the map. But Keyssar’s claim—a bold claim, but one I find persuasive—is that if these circumstances are to lead to lasting change, then the ensuing debate, campaigns and proposals must nonetheless be informed by history.


Daniel Sutton is reading for a DPhil in Ancient History at St John’s College, and is an Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.