Why do we still have the electoral college?

Alexander Keyssar

Book - 2020

"The author of the Pulitzer finalist The Right to Vote explains the enduring problem of an controversial institution: the Electoral College. Every four years, millions of Americans wonder why they choose their presidents through the Electoral College, an arcane institution that permits the loser of the popular vote to become president and narrows campaigns to swing states. Most Americans would prefer a national popular vote, and Congress has attempted on many occasions to alter or scuttle the Electoral College. Several of these efforts-one as recently as 1970-came very close to winning approval. Yet this controversial system remains. Alexander Keyssar explains its persistence. After tracing the Electoral College's tangled origins ...at the Constitutional Convention, he explores the efforts from 1800 to 2019 to abolish or significantly reform it, showing why each has thus far failed. Reasons include the tendency of political parties to elevate partisan advantage above democratic values, the difficulty of passing constitutional amendments, and, especially, the impulse to preserve white supremacy in the South, which led to the region's prolonged backing of the Electoral College. The most common explanation-that small states have blocked reform for fear of losing influence-has only occasionally been true. Keyssar examines why reform of the Electoral College has received so little attention from Congress for the last forty years, as well as alternatives to congressional action such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and state efforts to eliminate winner-take-all. In analyzing the reasons for past failures while showing how close the nation has come to abolishing the institution, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? offers encouragement to those hoping to produce change in the twenty-first century"--

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Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press 2020.
Main Author
Alexander Keyssar (author)
Physical Description
531 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Origins
  • 1. From the Constitution to the Twelfth Amendment
  • Part II. The Long Struggle to Abolish Winner-Take-All
  • 2. Electoral Reform in the Era of Good Feelings
  • 3. Three Uneasy Pieces, 1870-1960
  • Part III. A National Popular Vote
  • 4. "A Population Anomalous" and a National Popular Vote, 1800-1960
  • 5. An Idea Whose Time Has Come
  • 6. Last Call for the Twentieth Century
  • Part IV. Partisan Stalemate and Electoral Misfires
  • 7. Pessimism and Innovation, 1980-2020
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A. Public Opinion Polls
  • Appendix B. Constitutional Provisions for Presidential Elections
  • Appendix C. The Evolution of the Term Electoral College
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

After a brief hiatus, the Electoral College has once again become the subject of scrutiny, and new scholarship has emerged examining the institution on a variety of fronts. Keyssar (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Univ.) provides perhaps the most exhaustive treatment of the oft-maligned body. Despite nearly a thousand attempts to reform or abolish it, the Electoral College has persisted. Keyssar sets out to help readers understand why this is the case. In rich detail, he illustrates how the complex nature of the Electoral College and the difficulties presented by the constitutional amendment process largely explain its resilience. Uncertainty over how changes to the presidential selection process would affect outcomes has also impeded change. He concludes by analyzing current efforts to reform the Electoral College and suggests that its continued existence is not inevitable, although changes to it would require bipartisan action, something that has eluded realization in recent decades. Keyssar's treatise is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the Electoral College and its history. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. --Robert M. Alexander, Ohio Northern University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Why the Electoral College system has survived more than two centuries of opposition to its obvious imperfections. Featuring nearly 120 pages of endnotes, this is clearly a scholarly book that will appeal most to specialists and policymakers. Amid the obviously deeply researched scholarship, Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard, clearly explains the numerous objections to the Electoral College and the reasons those objections have never gained enough traction for reform to occur. An overly simplified explanation involves the desire to maintain the status quo instead of tinkering with "new arrangements that might have unintended consequences." Keyssar devotes some attention to the EC anomaly of Donald Trump in 2016 but digs more deeply into the history. The author begins with the Constitutional Convention in 1787, "where the framers of the Constitution struggled to figure out the best way for a new kingless nation to choose a chief executive." Within a decade, certain "problems" surfaced, which required the "adoption of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804." However, as Keyssar shows throughout the book, little has changed since the early 19th century. Much of the reform effort has focused on the winner-take-all-provision in each state on Election Day. A national popular vote, minus the EC mechanism, seemed like an obvious fix, but that idea never generated adequate momentum and "was essentially a nonstarter until the second half of the twentieth century." Further Constitutional amendments could have accomplished change, but that process is difficult to achieve regarding most issues. As efforts at solutions emanate mostly from the state government level, Keyssar explains the possibility of the current movement to free state electors from unquestioningly confirming the winner-take-all tradition. The author, who also offers cogent discussions of the role that race has played over the decades, believes the only way to parse the enduring illogic of a flawed system is the close study of historical forces. General readers may skim some sections, but the book contains solid, useful information to learn before the 2020 election. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.