Americans expect their presidents to get things done, to solve problems, to govern effectively, and to be strong leaders. The framers of the Constitution did not envision such presidential leadership. A scholar of the presidency points out that Article II of the Constitution gives the president scant formal power to influence congressional policy-making (Simon, n.d.). He also notes that the framers intentionally designed a process for selecting presidents that would minimize their political power – the Electoral College. They hoped this institution would insulate the chief executive from the public because they feared the power of presidents who might be elected by the people. Therefore, the Constitution provides that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…” Having state legislatures “appoint” the Electors who select the chief executive would minimize the president’s capacity to lead on the basis of his popular support. In a very real sense, the president would not be accountable to the people but rather to the state legislatures who appoint Electors. This procedure was also seen as a way to encourage the selection of statesmen with “characters preeminent for ability and virtue” rather than mere politicians with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” (Hamilton, 1788).
The practice of state legislatures appointing Electors continued for many years. Most American history texts do not report national presidential vote totals before 1824 because 25% of the states were still not holding presidential elections by that year. Even as late as 1876 the state of Colorado’s legislature appointed Electors. As states moved away from legislative appointment to the current system of allowing a state’s Electors to be chosen by a winner-take-all popular vote, the primary rationale for the Electoral College was forgotten in history. At the same time, public expectations of strong presidential leadership were rising.
This creates a problem well illustrated by the disputed election of 2000. George W. Bush was elected president with 271 electoral votes to Al Gore’s 266 electoral votes. However, Gore amassed 543,895 popular votes more than Bush. Also, because some disputed votes in Florida made unclear which candidate should receive the state’s electoral votes, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a full recount of the Florida vote. But the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and stopped the recount, thereby in effect awarding Florida’s electoral votes to Bush. While arguments continue to this day about the legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention, the 2000 election illustrates a glaring weakness of the Electoral College system – selecting a president whose authority may be diminished by the dubious circumstances of his or her election. The election of 2000 also has fueled a long ongoing debate about whether the Electoral College should be abandoned in favor of method which insures that the candidate elected has the most popular votes. Would this outcome be more consistent with contemporary public expectations about the president’s role as a national leader who can get things done?
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