There seems to be lots of discussion about why oh why do we have an Electoral College in the U.S.A. However, given the fact that we do have an Electoral College, the really seemingly odd thing, IMHO, is that all 50 states have a more-or-less similar institution that essentially relinquishes the state legislature's power by attempting to emulate a popular election. Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2 of the constitution says:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress...

This seems to permit a great amount of leeway to the legislatures of the various states to figure out all manner of interesting ways to appoint electors. Yet, every single state holds a popular vote for the choice of electors. To be sure, the rules vary slightly, but the electors could, for example, be voted on by the legislature during session, or chosen out of a hat or...?

I would have imagined that having been given the power to choose the electors, the state legislatures would guard this privilege fiercely, and yet they seem to just hand it to the people for no obvious reason.

For what reasons (legal, political, cultural, societal, psychological, historical or whatever) do the states all choose their electors via a popular voting mechanism?

* This question seems to be somewhat similar, but has elicited answers mostly be along the lines of "because that's how states have decided to do it." My question is about why states have decided to do it that way.

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    Not an answer but rather a guess; if one candidate for state legislature says that they vote to allow a popular vote to determine the state's EC votes; and another candidate says that they will vote to allow the legislature to determine the EC votes without input from the general public, then the second candidate seems unlikely to be elected.
    – GendoIkari
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 4:41
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    Perhaps there is some mechanism by which the legislators' continued employment prospects can be influenced by the general populace, and as a result they take the desires of the general populace into account when making decisions. Commented May 12, 2021 at 5:55
  • @Acccumulation, sure, but they don't put 99% of the other things they need to make a decision about up to a popular vote. Sure, they may take what they feel to be voters' opinions into consideration on many topics, but they may also frequently, for example, decide to simply vote party-lines. Certainly there are relatively few other examples of things that state legislatures bother to put up to a popular vote, and there are, AFAIK, no other examples of issues on which all 50 states hold referenda...
    – Him
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 11:41
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    Understand that the Article 2 text was written when it was often impractical to quickly and reliably total up the presidential votes in a state. Mandating a popular vote in all states would likely have created chaos. As written the text allows a slow progression to a popular vote (though it's certainly not clear that the progression needed to be as slow as it's being).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 20:56
  • @HotLicks your implied answer is that "everyone really deeply wants universal and equal suffrage for presidential elections." I don't think that this is true at all. Indeed, many states were undisputedly trying desperately to disenfranchise various groups at least as late as the 1960s. One trivial mechanism to disenfranchise voters would have been to gerrymander the less-closely-scrutinized state elections to pack the legislature with desired candidates, and then simply not have a popular vote for president. Why didn't they do that? I doubt a "one person one vote" mantra was it...
    – Him
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 21:26

2 Answers 2


Practical reality prevents that from happening.

While a state legislature has broad leeway on the subject of presidential electors, that legislature is beholden to the people who voted it in.

And if a state legislature were to change to selecting presidential electors by their vote and not the people's vote, that legislature would leave office in the next election cycle, in favor of legislators who committed to reverting back to popular vote.

Because such an action would essentially be restricting citizen input on the selection of a president. That would motivate a lot of citizens to take a keen interest in the next state election.


In The United States, the rise of Democracy was a reaction to monarchism. Despite how it ended up being executed on the ground, the framers held that the voice of the people should be the dominant authority.

James Madison, as quoted in the proceedings of the constitutional convention:

He was disposed [because of concern of corruption in the selection of the executive branch if selected by society's elite] to refer the appointment to some other source. The people at large was in his opinion the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character. The people generally could only know & vote for some Citizen whose merits had rendered him an object of general attention & esteem.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 68, states "the sense of the people should operate in the choice."

The existence of the Electoral College was a compromise with slave states since, at the time, popular vote directly would profoundly benefit non-slave states in terms of political clout.

It should not be surprising at all, then, that the various states decided to follow these recommendations and, within the constraints of the Constitution that there needed to be a slate of electors chosen, instead of a candidate for president directly, otherwise left this measure to popular vote.

At the time, Senators were not voted on by the people, but instead selected by the state legislatures - a practice which would continue until eventually, in 1914, Senators also were now elected by popular vote in all states.

The concept of the popular vote holds a special place of significance in United States political thought and history - that the electors are between the voters and the choice was not considered the ideal, even at the time, but a necessary bargain struck to ensure ratification.

In short, states choose the popular vote to select their electors, because this is how the entire system was envisioned from the start by the framers.

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    It should be noted that the selection of senators changed after it started becoming a trend that states would fail to appoint new senators and there was lots of empty seats.
    – Joe W
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 14:12
  • @JoeW TIL! That's... kind of funny, actually. But also, they could have chosen any number of other mechanisms, so the answer stands, but that's good context to have here, too. Commented May 12, 2021 at 14:23
  • @JoeW By "fail" do you mean that they simply would not get around to it, or that there would be some kind of faction deadlock?
    – Him
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 15:34
  • @Him From my understanding it was both but in the end it is still a failure to appoint someone and the reason doesn't matter. Seats where going empty for years which was a problem.
    – Joe W
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 15:38
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    "because this is how the entire system was envisioned from the start by the framers": why then did they not specify that in the constitution? Quoting two people who said they thought it should be that way doesn't prove that everyone thought the same, and the fact that a majority approved the text as promulgated is good evidence that most did not want it to be that way.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 13, 2021 at 3:31

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