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The Mode of Electing the President

The Mode of Electing the President

by Paul Engel

While discussing the mode of electing the President of the United States in Federalist Papers #68, Alexander Hamilton said: "I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent." A reasonable observation of the recent Presidential election shows that what we did is certainly not perfect, and could be described as far from excellent. So let’s look at how we have drifted from such an excellent process.

While reading this you will learn:

  • The original method the founders used to elect the President
  • The series of events with which we have fallen away from this method
  • The effect of this falling away
  • And, the changes we can make to return to this original method

"It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture."


Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

Notice that the responsibility of choosing the President does not go to an preestablished body, neither does it go to the people directly. The power of selecting the President goes to men chosen by the people for this purpose, and this purpose only. James Madison went further in describing the method of choosing electors in his letter to George Hay:

"I agree entirely with you in thinking that the election of Presidential Electors by districts, is an amendment very proper to be brought forward at the same time with that relating to the eventual choice of President by the H. of Reps. The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed & adopted; and was exchanged for the general ticket & the Legislative election, as the only expedient for baffling the policy of the particular States which had set the example."

James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

Compare this to how we elect the President today. Yes, we still have the Electoral College, which seems to confuse many Americans. Instead of choosing men for the special purpose of electing the President though, we choose people based on their promise to support the preferred candidate of one of the political parties.

"It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations."


Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

The plan designed by our Founders was that a small group of people, chosen from among the citizens, were to analyze the qualities desired for the office and deliberate on who best embodied those characteristics. Then, based on those deliberations and the individual’s conscience, the would individually vote for President and Vice President.

Today, there is no analysis by the electors and no real deliberation on who would best fulfill those qualities. Instead, the electors are bound to a promise made before they were even elected to the office. Since 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, appoint their electors in a winner take all fashion, the very idea of debate has become moot. Furthermore, those electors are not chosen from the general mass of their fellow citizens. Rather they are chosen by their political party, in hopes that the populace, ignorant of the elector’s constitutional role, will chose their party’s champion for office and allow them to cast a vote already established.

"It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place."


Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

If there is one way to describe this election season, it’s tumult and disorder. From pre- election arguments over mail-in balloting and state election laws, to disputes over the methods used to insure an accurate and transparent count of the ballots, it seems the disorder in certain cities and counties have infected the entire nation. The precautions originally put in place to provide security against such a situation have been corrupted. Rather than choosing several people to elect the President, the people effectively choose a candidate, turning the electors into automatons, having little if any choice in the matter. This leads not only to the tumult of months, if not years, of campaigning by the candidates, punctuated by extraordinary attempts to paint one’s preferred candidate as the hope for the nation while vilifying their opponent as the antithesis of liberty itself. Even the term we use for this intermediate group is misleading. Many assume that the members of the “Electoral College” meet in one place to “certify” the election of their state. This was not the plan for choosing the President. By limiting the ultimate decision to a few people in each state, the majority of the nation was to be spared the political intrigue that seems an almost constant part of life in America today. By redirecting the choice of the people from a few, local individuals, to a national contest for the office of President, we have turned up the heat on a process designed to be cool, rational, and deliberative.

"Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

We have removed the obstacles to cabal, intrigue, and corruption our Founding Fathers put in place and have removed control of the election process from the representatives of the people in the states to the cabals of political parties. With the party centric, winner-take-all process being used to appoint electors, the influence of a few “battle- ground” states has effectively taken over. The 2020 election was rife with intrigue and corruption, especially in these “battle-ground” states, to the point where I see no outcome that doesn’t have a significant portion of the populace believing that the election was stolen. We have invited these adversaries to republican government into our elections and allowed ourselves to be indoctrinated into the idea that this is how it is supposed to work. While the convention may have been concerned with the influence of foreign powers in the election, our ignorance has exposed us to the influence of domestic political parties as well. The decision in November was preceded by primary elections controlled by the preexisting political parties. We consent to the choosing of electors who have already prostituted their votes to their party’s champion. Rather than being a temporary group chosen for the sole purpose of selecting the President, this elite class of party apparatchik limit and control the choices of the people. While the Constitution was meant to protect us from the corruption of the process, we have merely changed one preexisting body for another.


"Another and no less important desideratum was, that the Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

So much for the office of President being dependent on those chosen by the people, when the people don’t even get to choose who the electors will be. Their only choice is between, with rare exception, the officials of the two largest political parties. By concentrating the choice to these two parties, not only are the people limited in who they can choose to elect to the office of President, but the opportunities for intrigue and corruption seem to multiply with each election.

"All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

We have effectively destroyed all of the advantages the convention put in place. Yes, each state chooses a number of electors, but the pre-determined slate of anonymous electors, bound to a party’s champion for office, bears little resemblance to the independent representatives Hamilton is describing. These electors do not vote for some fit person for President, they regurgitate the outcome of an election with limited choices determined by political parties. Does that sound like an election in a free republic, or one you would find in a banana republic, where the ruling elite tell the people who they can vote for?

"The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States."

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #68

While the process of election our Founding Fathers created may not have actually afforded a moral certainty that the office of President would never fall to a man not endowed with the requisite qualifications, they certainly did a better job then than the twisted and distorted system we use today. If we wish lower intrigue in the election of President, if we want those who hold that distinguished office to have the talents to do the job well, and if we want the successful candidate to hold the esteem of the vast majority of the union, then we should return to the process established by the Constitution.


Most of the complaints I hear about the Electoral College have nothing to do with the Constitution of the United States, but with the winner-take-all process most states have adopted. Many are attempting to resolve these issues either by abolishing the Electoral College or by making it effectively meaningless. Meanwhile, if we look at the observations of Mr. Hamilton, we see that to eliminate the electors is to invite further chaos, tumult, and disorder.

Since the problem with several recent elections appears not to be the Electoral College, but the methods states use to appoint electors, the problem can be fixed at the state level. I therefore propose the following framework to the citizens of the several states for consideration.

  1. That an elector be appointed by popular vote within each Congressional district within the state. The remaining two electors be appointed based on the popular vote state- wide.

  2. That all presidential electors be chosen by the people, not the political parties. That means the people will vote for named individuals willing to serve as electors for their district. These individuals may pledge support for a specific candidate, regardless of the position of any political party, but that is not required. If an elector pledges to support a candidate, they will vote accordingly on the day the electors vote under penalty of perjury.

  3. Since political parties are private, not-for-profit organizations, the states will cease any and all support for primary elections. If a private organization wishes to conduct a vote to chose their champion, let them do it. However, the outcome of any such primary will not be used to limit the choice of the electors when they vote.


These changes may seem radical, but they are simply an attempt to return to the manner of choosing the President that our Founders created. A process that Mr. Hamilton thought was, if not perfect, at least excellent. Furthermore, by reinforcing the notion that the states and not the federal government or the political parties, are in charge of appointing electors, we restore a bit of federalism to our republic. Perhaps, if the people advised the electors rather than fighting over candidates, we can avoid the tumult, chaos, distrust, and corruption of the election process we witnessed in 2020.