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At least 1,000 protesters march through the Loop to demand every vote be counted in the general election, Wednesday night, Nov. 4, 2020. A full day after Election Day, neither candidate had cleared the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House as President Donald Trump’s campaign has filed lawsuits and attempted to stop ballot counting in several battleground states.

At least 1,000 protesters march through the Loop to demand every vote be counted in the general election, Wednesday night, Nov. 4, 2020. A full day after Election Day, neither candidate had cleared the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House as President Donald Trump’s campaign has filed lawsuits and attempted to stop ballot counting in several battleground states. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

How was the Electoral College created?

How did this system come to be, and how has it persevered for more than two centuries?

Every four years, when the presidential election rolls around, national pundits discuss strategies for candidates to win key battleground states. In any other election – from Congressional races to state-level contests – the focus would be on winning the most votes instead of prioritizing votes in specific geographic areas.

The reason for this difference is the Electoral College.

But how did this system come to fruition? And how has it persevered for more than 200 years?

For a quick refresher: Under the Electoral College, states earn an electoral vote for every U.S. House Representative and U.S. Senator they have.

Illinois will have 19 electoral votes in the 2024 presidential election: 17 from the House, and two from the Senate.

In most states, the presidential candidate who earns the most votes receives every electoral vote the state has. The candidate who receives at least 270 electoral votes wins the election.

This system has been in place since the Constitutional Convention in 1787 but was only reached through compromise.

“Nobody really wanted the Electoral College,” Wilfred Codrington III, a constitutional law scholar at the Brooklyn Law School, said on WBEZ’s Rundown podcast. “It was this sort of fluke where they landed on that because it was not as disagreeable as the other alternatives.”

Most of the founders had no interest in adopting a popular vote system, as they did not trust the general public to elect a leader without checks in place.

Codrington suggested the framers felt threatened by the majority and feared if decisions were left in the hands of the people, their wealth would be put in jeopardy.

William Howell, a politics professor at the University of Chicago, said this idea is becoming increasingly less relevant.

“When the popular vote reflected an ill-considered choice, it was thought members of the Electoral College, exercising their own judgment, could offer a correction and select somebody different,” Howell said. “That concern has fallen by the wayside.”

The current system almost exclusively follows the will of the people.

There were no electors in 2020 who selected a different candidate than the one chosen by the popular vote in their jurisdiction, and dozens of states prohibit electors from deviating.

“The Electoral College today is just an accounting mechanism for how we count votes,” Howell said. “It’s not seen as a collective judgment by thoughtful, well-informed elites to step in and deliver somebody other than what the popular vote within separate jurisdictions would like.”

Another major consideration when creating the Electoral College, especially for Southern states, was slavery.

“The South wanted to maintain as much power as they had,” Codrington said. “And at the same time, they were obviously not trying to allow their slaves, who they considered to be property, not people, to participate.”

From this, the three-fifths compromise was born.

Under the three-fifths compromise, slaves counted as 60% of a state’s population, even though they were not allowed to vote.

“You’re getting more political power by counting a fraction of the politically powerless,” Codrington said. “That boosts their numbers in terms of their population, and the Electoral College is, in large part, based on your population.”

In one situation, outlined by Codrington, Pennsylvania and Virginia had a similar number of people who were eligible to vote. But since Virginia held more than 300,000 slaves, it wound up with six more electoral votes than Pennsylvania in the 1792 election.

Today, a common argument made by proponents of the Electoral College is that it forces presidential candidates to spend more time in smaller states than they would in a popular-vote system. But Codrington feels that argument falls short.

“The reason why that argument is just preposterous in many ways is because politicians ignore most of the country right now,” Codrington said. “The only states that matter to them are those states that are going to turn the Electoral College. And so it doesn’t matter if you’re California, New York, Florida, Delaware or Wyoming, they’re not going to you under the system.”

With the all-or-nothing nature of the Electoral College making the results in many states that lean heavily left or right a foregone conclusion for presidential candidates come November, Howell said voter turnout takes a hit.

“[Those states] are largely ignored by the presidential campaigns, and so there aren’t ‘get out the vote’ efforts,” Howell said. “There isn’t a mass influx of advertising, the candidates aren’t regularly showing up in those states, and so turnout is somewhat depressed.”

But Howell believes under a popular vote system, there could be a net positive gain in the number of people that head to the polls.

“[In a popular vote system,] the vote that you cast in California for a Democrat isn’t effectively wasted because it will go toward a national total,” Howell said. “Whereas right now, whoever the Democratic candidate is can count on wrapping up California pretty solidly.”

Over the years there have been many failed attempts to switch to a popular vote system, or something closer to it. The latest effort is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Introduced in 2006, the compact works around the need for a constitutional amendment, as states opt in individually. Once enough states representing 270 electoral votes opt in, the compact will take effect. It currently holds 209 electoral votes.

Howell believes it will be difficult for the compact to come to fruition. He points out that no states that lean Republican have joined the compact, as the Electoral College benefited the party in 2000 and 2016, when Republican candidates who lost the popular vote still won the election.

“You’ve got to find a handful of states that lean Republican that would be willing to tie their hands,” Howell said. “That’s a hard sell in today’s polarized political environment.”

Noah Jennings is WBEZ’s afternoon news producer. Follow him @noahajennings.

This story is part of The Democracy Solutions Project, a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

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