The Electoral College, or, What Goes Around, Comes Around

Following presidential election cycles, debates sometimes occurred regarding the elimination of the Electoral College by amendment to our constitution.  While certainly the 2000 and 2016 elections proved to be flashpoints for this discussion, given that both the losing candidates actually had more of the popular vote, the pro and con arguments existed long before those and other recent elections.[1]

For example, in December 29, 1829, the Governor of Missouri enclosed resolutions from the state legislature in communications to fellow governors.  One of the included resolutions concerned amending the United States Constitution, allowing voters to directly elect the President and Vice-President.  Noting that the Constitution should have a uniform mode of election without the intervention of the Electoral College, the resolution further stated that the Missouri Representatives and Senators should “use the best endeavors” to procure such an amendments.  LLMC #42586, at 7.  This was a simple message contained in a straightforward resolution.

In response, a Joint Committee in the Connecticut General Assembly was appointed to consider this resolution during its May 1830 session.  LLMC #42614.[2]  Despite Missouri’s assertion that the people (that is, eligible white male voters) be allowed the privilege of a direct vote for President and Vice-President, along with concurring resolutions from the legislatures of Georgia and Vermont, this committee did not agree.  Concluding that the framers of the Constitution were men of the “utmost purity, talents, and patriotism,” the committee concluded that the object of this form of voting was “not the formation of a consolidated empire, but a combination of the energies of the distinct State sovereignties, for certain specified national purposes.”   The committee then concluded that the contrary principle for popular representation was not adopted by the framers, and the use of the Electoral College followed great difficulty in the Constitutional Convention.  LLMC #42614, at 4-5.  The Joint Committee then resolved that the Constitution should not be altered.  Id. at 5.  As the above resolutions indicated, this matter was not a matter of easy agreement among the states.

However, the Civil War brought other considerations regarding the Electoral College.  For example, the Humboldt Register, a newspaper published in Unionville, Nevada Territory, had an interesting article in its Saturday, March 26, 1864 edition LLMC #01702t, No. 48.  Entitled simply “The Choice of a President,” it discussed Ohio Senator Sherman’s series of resolutions defining constitutional issues for the upcoming Presidential election of 1864.  Referring to the remaining states in the Union, the concern was whether a majority of the electors who are qualified and appointed were sufficient to elect the president.   After discussion, the article supported Sherman’s resolution that the Twelfth Amendment indicated that only a majority of those electors submitting their votes will be counted, thus eliminating the Confederate states as part of the needed number.  Further should the election end up in the House of Representatives for a decision, only the states which were represented (and thus not the Confederate states) would determine the election for President.  This disposed of any constitutional issues, although the author held out some hope that North Carolina and Texas might reorganize and have a loyal government by the election.  Nevertheless, the article concluded that one of the candidates resulting from the two conventions in Baltimore and Chicago would be elected President by the Electoral College.  Id. at.14. 

Other states more handily disposed of the proposed amendment.  For example, the Assembly for the State of New York considered and then tabled a resolution to eliminate the Electoral College during a January 5, 1865 session.  LLMC #40825 January 1865, at 38.  Similarly, as discussed in The Cheyenne Leader newspaper on Wednesday June 3, 1868, a joint resolution was argued by Congressman Ashley to limit the President to only one term, eliminate the office of Vice-President, and revise the electoral process to eliminate the Electoral College.  Despite his efforts, it did not advance, as the House then adjourned.  LLMC #01043t, June 1868 at 9.  Even when proposals were not immediately tabled, as with the resolution to eliminate a second Presidential term and the Electoral College, affirmed by the 73rd Pennsylvania Senate in 1873, no consequences seemed to follow. LLMC #40830 at 376.


In the January 1889 session, Tennessee senators reviewed a House joint resolution to abolish the Electoral College and use direct vote for the election of the President and Vice-President. Despite a proposed amendment to elect the President and Vice-President in a similar manner as the Congressmen in their respective districts, and that the electors be voted for by the people, both the original resolution and amendment were tabled.  Journal of the Senate of Tennessee, LLMC #40813, January 1889, at 250. 


Focus on the elimination of the Electoral College again followed the 1892 election in which Grover Cleveland was elected with a small percent of the popular vote, but a large margin in the Electoral College. (, citing, 1892 Presidential Election"The American Presidency Project. Retrieved 25 June 2014.)    Despite the lopsided vote in the Electoral College as compared to the popular vote, subsequent proposals to eliminate this method met with little success.  At best, the proposal seemed only to be referred to committee, which then recommended non passage.  See, Texas House Journal, LLMC #40752, January 1893 at 161; Journal of the Oregon House, LLMC #40766. January 1893 session at 211-213.


The Electoral College therefore remains, as no proposals and recommendations have been successful in challenging the method for electing the President and Vice-President.  Despite a minority view that “the election of the president and vice-president [was] the cause of contention and strife, by means of the electoral college,” LLMC #40766 at 212, the skirmishes to end the system espoused by the Twelfth Amendment have not progressed beyond wishful thinking.  Unless consensus develops to eliminate this method, future challenges will continue with some regularity.  Early State Records provided numerous examples of these encounters, all to no avail.

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed here, as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

[1] In all, there have been five such elections: 1824 (John Quincy Adams); 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes); 1888 (Benjamin Harrison); 2000 (George W. Bush); and 2016 (Donald Trump).  See

[2] This was a Maryland document, which contained the August 28, 1830 communication from the Connecticut governor regarding the various states’ resolutions to eliminate the Electoral College.  However, all the included material in this document was from Connecticut.