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Rob Natelson
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Presidential Elector Discretion: The Originalist Evidence (Part 2)
Rob Natelson

[Editor's Note: This is the second part of guest-blogger Rob Natelson's assessment of presidential electors' discretion to vote for candidates other than the one who received the most votes in the elector's state.  As Professor Natelson explains in his previous post, in 2016 some Democratic electors in Colorado and Washington state voted for persons other than the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, despite state laws purporting to required them to vote for the candidate receiving the most votes in the state; litigation challenging the constitutionality of such state laws is ongoing.  In his previous post, Professor Natelson presented originalist evidence in support of the electors based on text, constitutional structure and contemporaneous practice.  This post addresses evidence from the Constitutional Convention and the ratifying debates.]

Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention. The Electoral College was the product of extensive, and sometimes excruciating, deliberation among the delegates to the framing convention. The final plan was, in all but a few details, hammered out by a blue-ribbon committee consisting of eleven delegates, one from each state then participating in the convention.

This committee was laden with extraordinary talent. Chaired by David Brearly, then Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, it counted among its other members James Madison, John DickinsonGouverneur Morris, and Roger Sherman—to name only some of the best known.

Reasons too lengthy to recite here tell us the committee’s plan was carefully considered. The specific decision to institute an Electoral College was based partly on the need to ensure the president’s independence from both Congress and the states. The need for independence from the states had been first enunciated by James Wilson. (Wilson initially favored direct election of the president, but shortly thereafter proposed direct choice by electors instead.) According to Madison’s notes, Wilson “wished to derive not only both branches of the Legislature from the people, without the intervention of the State Legislatures but the Executive also; in order to make them as independent as possible of each other, as well as of the States.”

The desire to render the process largely independent of the states is why the convention repeatedly rejected proposals for state officials to choose the president. As Edmund Randolph observed, “A Natl. Executive thus chosen will not be likely to defend with becoming vigilance & firmness the national rights agst. State encroachments.”

Of course, permitting the states to dictate electors’ votes would undercut that policy of independence from the states.

The Ratification Debates. Still another category of evidence consists of the public debates over whether to ratify the Constitution. These debates occurred between September 17, 1787, when the Constitution became public, and May 29, 1790, when the 13th state, Rhode Island, ratified. They included remarks made in the state ratifying conventions as well as public comments in the form of speeches, pamphlets, broadsides, letters, and newspapers. The record of those debates suggests that the ratifiers and the voting public understood presidential electors were to exercise their own judgment when voting.

Probably the most-quoted ratification-era statement of this kind is found in Hamilton’s Federalist No. 68:

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. . . . 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.

Admittedly, for a number of reasons, we should not over-rely on The Federalist—or on Hamilton—when reconstructing how the public understood the Constitution. Fortunately, there is a fair amount of additional evidence. There are, first, comments stating merely that the electors (rather than anyone else) would decide how to vote, and that they would act independently.

For example, Roger Sherman, a delegate at Philadelphia and a supporter of the Constitution, wrote that the president would be “re eligible as often as the electors shall think proper.” An essayist signing his name Civis Rusticus (Latin for “Country Citizen”) wrote that “the president was [chosen] by electors.” The Antifederalist author Centinel asserted that the state legislatures would “nominate the electors who choose the President of the United States.” The Antifederalist Candidus feared “the choice of President by a detached body of electors [as] dangerous and tending to bribery.”

In his second Fabius letterJohn Dickinson—also described elector conduct in a way consistent only with free choice:

When these electors meet in their respective states, utterly vain will be the unreasonable suggestions derived for partiality. The electors may throw away their votes, mark, with public disappointment, some person improperly favored by them, or justly revering the duties of their office, dedicate their votes to the best interests of their country.

In Federalist No. 64, John Jay likewise implied elector choice and independence:

The convention . . . have directed the President to be chosen by select bodies of electors, to be deputed by the people for that express purpose; and they have committed the appointment of senators to the State legislatures . . .  As the select assemblies for choosing the President, as well as the State legislatures who appoint the senators, will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens, there is reason to presume that their attention and their votes will be directed to those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.

Some participants emphasized that electors would remain independent because the Constitution would protect them from outside influence. At the North Carolina ratifying convention, James Iredell, later a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke to the issue in a slightly different context:

Nothing is more necessary than to prevent every danger of influence. Had the time of election been different in different states, the electors chosen in one state might have gone from state to state, and conferred with the other electors, and the election might have been thus carried on under undue influence. But by this provision, the electors must meet in the different states on the same day, and cannot confer together. They may not even know who are the electors in the other states. There can be, therefore, no kind of combination. It is probable that the man who is the object of the choice of thirteen different states, the electors in each voting unconnectedly with the rest, must be a person who possesses, in a high degree, the confidence and respect of his country.

Advocates of the Constitution sometimes promoted the Electoral College as representing a viewpoint all its own rather than as reflecting the will of others. Hence Hamilton’s observation in Federalist No. 60:

The House of Representatives being to be elected immediately by the people, the Senate by the State legislatures, the President by electors chosen for that purpose by the people, there would be little probability of a common interest to cement these different branches in a predilection for any particular class of electors.

Some participants discussed how electors might be appointed—whether by the state legislatures or the people. For example, an essayist styled A Democratic Federalist wrote, “our federal Representatives will be chosen by the votes of the people themselves. The Electors of the President and Vice President of the union may also, by laws of the separate states, be put on the same footing.”

Yet such discussions of appointment were not accompanied by claims that those who made the appointments would dictate the electors’ votes. To be sure, William Davie, another Philadelphia delegate, said at the North Carolina ratifying convention that “The election of the executive is in some measure under the control of the legislatures of the states, the electors being appointed under their direction.” But “in some measure under the control” does not mean “wholly dictate.”

Possibly the closest anyone came to suggesting the legislatures would direct electors’ votes was a comment by Increase Sumner at the Massachusetts ratifying convention: “The President is to be chosen by electors under the regulation of the state legislature.” However, it is unclear what Sumner meant by “regulation.” He could be referring merely to the fact that the legislature would “regulate” how electors were appointed.

For those most part, moreover, participants worded their statements in ways that avoided any suggestions that electors’ votes could be controlled. In arguing for the Constitution, One of the People declared:

By the constitution, the president is to be chosen by ninety-one electors, each having one vote of this number . . . The constitution also admits of the people choosing the electors, so that the electors may be only one remove from the people . . .

Note how this is phrased: (1) the electors choose the president, (2) the people may choose the electors, and if so (3) the choice of the president will be “only one remove from [not “determined by”] the people.”

At the Massachusetts ratifying convention Thomas Thacher asserted “The President is chosen by the electors, who are appointed by the people.” And at the North Carolina convention Iredell argued that “the President is of a very different nature from a monarch. He is to be chosen by electors appointed by the people.” Again, observe the difference between appointment and choice of the president.

In sum, the Hamilton Electors have good cause to claim the mantle of originalism.