According to the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is a body of people representing each state of the United States (and the District of Columbia) who formally cast votes for the election of the President and Vice President. The President and Vice President are the only elective federal officials not chosen by the direct vote of the American people.
On presidential election day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every fourth year, each state chooses as many electors as it has senators and representatives in Congress (In 1964, the 23rd amendment to the Constitution made it possible for the District of Columbia to vote for three electors). Therefore, with 100 senators and 435 representatives, there are 535, plus 3 members from the District of Columbia, for a total of 538 member of the Electoral College. A majority of 270 electoral votes are needed to elect both the President and Vice President.
And, of course, the three fifths provision gave southern states extra votes. Added to this was the obvious distrust by the moneyed elites--North and South--of the wisdom of the masses.
The unsavory origins of this duplicative, complicated system date back to the beginnings of the republic in a series of maneuvers designed to accommodate the disproportionate political strength of the slave-holding states. While some historians protest against this interpretation and claim that the purpose of the college is to balance the power of big states against the smaller states, it is necessary to note, for example, that the reason the state of Virginia is called the “Mother of Presidents” is because seven of the first 12 presidential elections were won by slaveholding natives of the Old Dominion, at the time the country’s largest state. Only a handful of presidential candidates have ever been elected from small states.
During the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia which set forth the structure and objectives of the constitution, slavery, according to James Madison, proved to be the original wedge issue between the northern and southern delegates. And the southern delegates threatened to leave if they did not get their pro-slavery way.
That amounted to doing whatever was necessary to protect and extend American slavery. There are five constitutional clauses that directly support slavery. For example, until it was superseded by the 13th Amendment, Article four of the Constitution required the return of fugitive slaves.
Direct presidential elections were considered and then dropped. If elections in the House of Representatives were to be based on population, enslaved Africans must be counted (even though they could not vote) so unless they could be counted in some way, perhaps indirectly, southern delegates would not sign off on the measure. Hence the infamous three-fifths compromise (which counted Africans as 3/5 of a person).
Moreover, most of the southern delegates did not favor direct elections. And, of course, the three fifths provision gave southern states extra votes. Added to this was the obvious distrust by the moneyed elites--North and South--of the wisdom of the masses.
The growing cleavage between both sides was next demonstrated in the elections of 1800 where southerners backed Jefferson and northerners backed Adams. Jefferson won in large measure because of the additional electoral votes produced by the South’s large enslaved African population.
Author Gary Wills called Jefferson, “the Negro President” in a 2003 book by that title because of the role of the enslaved in hoisting him into the White House. According to historian William Freehling, in the election of 1800, the three-fifths clause gave southerners a twelve-vote premium in the Electoral College. Only a few people at that time commented publicly on the galloping irony of the situation. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804 attempted to tinker with the obvious bias, but with debatable effect.