From a European perspective, the US presidential election can seem very odd: the candidate with the most votes occasionally loses, the election itself takes place on a Tuesday and the president is ultimately elected by the Electors of the so-called Electoral College. In the following, I try to explain how and why this system was designed in this very unique way.
Our story starts in 1787, about four years after the successful conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, in Philadelphia, PA, where deputies of the thirteen American states met to draft a new constitution. Up until that point, the Articles of Confederation, which had been in effect since 1777, governed the relations between the states as well as the tasks and authority of the central government. However, this first constitution proved to be dysfunctional since, in a modern understanding, it was in both style and content much closer to an international treaty than what we would understand as an actual constitution. To give an example, under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government did not even have the authority to introduce and levy taxes. Ultimately, the resemblance between the United States as they were designed under the Articles of Confederation and today’s European Union is quite striking: a central body made up of sovereign states with clearly defined, yet not very far-reaching, competencies.
This analogy to the EU might make it easier for us to understand how difficult it must have been to draft a constitution that all thirteen states would agree to. As we will see later on, the challenges and differences that had to be overcome were legion. However, by focusing on one problem at a time, proposing compromises that let every state keep its face and, when necessary, establishing his undisputed moral authority, George Washington, the President of the Constitutional Convention, made the impossible possible: a new constitution with a severely strengthened federal government.
Before we can focus on the presidential election, we have to lie our focus on the legislative branch. Here, it was extraordinarily difficult to reconcile the different needs and ambitions of, one the one hand, the northern and the southern states and, on the other hand, the more and less populous states. Ultimately, two important compromises were reached. First, the delegates agreed on the so-called Connecticut Compromise, according to which Congress should consist of two chambers: the House of Representatives, where the number of representatives per state was to be proportional to its population, and the Senate, where every state, no matter how small or large, was assigned two senators. However, while this was enough to placate the densely populated states, the southern states were not yet on board. They only agreed when the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise, which stated that, when calculating the size of the population to determine the number of seats in the House, every slave would count as three-fifths of a white person, was brought into play.
As one can imagine, after such intense debates over how to design Congress, the discussions over how to set up the presidential election were no less heated. Over time, the delegates worked out two alternative solutions. However, the first variant, where the president would have been elected by the House of Representatives, quickly ran into a number of problems. First, having the president elected by the legislative branch would have violated the principle of the separation of powers. Second, on a more practical side, this proposal once again flared
up the old conflict between the more and less populous states since it would have given very little weight to the latter ones in the presidential election. Consequently, the less populous states supported the second variant: the election of the president via the electoral college. In this institution, the number of votes each state were to get was to be equal to its number of members of Congress. Obviously, this significantly amplified the influence of small states. If we look at today’s electoral map, the first solution would have assigned California 53 votes, while Wyoming would only have gotten one. Under the second solution, however, both states increased their number of votes by two since every state has two senators, bringing the ratio up to 55:3. Consequently, while Wyoming’s importance tripled, California’s number of votes increased by a mere 3.8 percent.
However, the heavily populated states did not agree to this solution light-headedly. By contrast, as they were convinced that a candidate would only on very rare occasions reach the necessary absolute majority in the electoral college, they introduced the passage that when no absolute majority can be reached, the House of Representatives will ultimately elect the president. However, yet again, they had to compromise: in such a scenario, each state would only have one vote in the House. At the end of the day, the agreed to this formula in the full knowledge that anyway no law could be passed without the consent of Congress. Their expectation that the electoral college would be an indecisive and toothless institution, however, proved to be incorrect since the House of Representatives has so far only been called upon twice, in 1804 and 1824, to elect the president.
As we could see, the electoral system in the United States has been designed on a quite rational basis whose main end was to reach a compromise that everybody could agree to. Ever since then, when electing a new president, the population has voted for electors, who subsequently expressed the popular will in the electoral college. That leaves us with one final question: why does the United States vote on a Tuesday?
In order to understand this phenomenon, one has to take a closer look at the socio-economic structure of the US in 1787. Back then, the majority of the population was both very religious and worked in agriculture. Consequently, the election could neither take a place on a Sunday, the day of the Lord, nor on a Wednesday, which was the traditional market day where farmers could sell their produce. In addition, some people had to undertake a one-day journey in order to get to the next polling station, which is why the vote could not take place on a Monday or a Thursday either. Thus, it was ultimately decided that elections were to take place on a Tuesday.