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Electoral College: How It Started

Written By:

Laura Ruzicka

Publishing Date:

August 15, 2022

The Electoral College is an integral part of how we elect our President, yet many Americans are not aware of how it came to be. According to the National Archives, the Electoral College was established as “a compromise between the election of a President by a vote in Congress and an election of the President by popular vote of qualified citizens.” It began during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 where delegates gathered from every state to discuss a better way to establish a more functional government than the Articles of Confederation.

This led to two proposals: The Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan. Virginia argued for three branches of government, as well as a bicameral legislature where a state’s representation would be proportional to its population. Whereas New Jersey argued to keep a unicameral legislature, where each state would get one representative regardless of population. States with higher populations favored the Virginia Plan, while smaller states preferred the New Jersey Plan. ​ After an intense debate, the majority sided with Virginia, but the smaller states who opposed this plan threatened to withdraw from the union, which threatened to derail the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. To stop the Convention from spiraling out of control, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth put together the Connecticut Compromise, also known as –"The Great Compromise." This created two legislative bodies in Congress: The House of Representatives and the Senate. The number of members each state could have in the House would be based on each state’s population while in the Senate, each state would have two representatives regardless of population. ​ The population and resulting congressional districts each state would have would be updated every ten years according to the national census. The number of electors each state has is the sum of its Congressional districts plus the number of senators. For instance, Colorado currently has been divided into seven congressional districts, and each state is granted two senators no matter what, giving Colorado a total of nine electors. Today, the Electoral College has 538 electors, with 270 being necessary to elect the President. However, back when there were only thirteen states the Electoral College had only sixty-nine electors with a minimum of thirty-five electoral votes needed to win the presidency. ​ However, in the 18th century slavery was still legal in most of the states, and with the creation of The Great Compromise most states worried that slave-owning states would get increased influence and overwhelm the other smaller states that chose to ban it. This is apparent in the 1790 census where it showed Virginia’s total population had risen to 747,610 but 292,627 of its residents were slaves. Such states wanted to find a way to make use of their slave population to gain congressional representation in accordance with the state’s total population. Thus The 3/5th Compromise was established between the northern and southern Convention delegates as a way of determining how much the slave population would be represented as part of the state’s total population. For every five slaves in a state would then count as three free citizens to determine how many congressional districts each state would be allotted.

Sources

National Archives and Records Administration. (2019, December 17). “Electoral College History.” National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/electoral-college/history

Onion, A. (2019, March 21). “How the Great Compromise and the Electoral College Affects Politics Today.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC.https://www.history.com/news/how-the-great-compromise-affects-politics-today

“What Is the 3/5 Compromise?”. (n.d.). ConstitutionUS.com. Retrieved August 5, 2022. https://constitutionus.com/constitution/what-is-the-3-5-compromise/

“Virginia Plan vs New Jersey Plan.” (n.d.). ConstitutionUS.com. Retrieved August 5, 2022. https://constitutionus.com/constitution/the-virginia-plan-vs-new-jersey-plan/

“What Is the New Jersey Plan.” (n.d.). ConstitutionUS.com. Retrieved August 5, 2022. https://constitutionus.com/constitution/what-was-the-new-jersey-plan/

U.S Census Bureau. (2021, December 16). 1790 Census: Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790. census.gov. Retrieved August 5, 2022. https://www.census.gov/library/publications/1907/dec/heads-of-families.html

Berggren, J. (n.d.). Presidential Election of 1789. www.mountvernon.org. Retrieved August 5, 2022. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/presidential-election-of-1789/