Why Did State Legislatures Give Up Power to Pick Presidential Electors?


The United States Constitution grants state legislatures the authority to determine the manner of selecting presidential electors. Per Article II, Section 1, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” its presidential electors for purposes of electing the President of the United States (emphasis added).

This power was intended by the Framers to enable state legislatures to directly choose electors rather than relying on the popular vote of the people. In the early practice of the United States, state legislatures commonly exercised this authority. However, a significant shift occurred over time, leading to the current practice where all states select their electors based on the popular vote. This transformation raises an intriguing question: why did state legislatures relinquish their power to choose electors and allow the public to decide?

At the heart of this puzzle lies a fundamental understanding of political institutions and their inherent tendency to seek and maintain power. Generally, political bodies are known for their reluctance to cede authority. Yet, in this instance, state legislatures across the country transitioned from directly selecting presidential electors to adopting a system that reflects the popular will of their constituents.

One plausible explanation for this change could be the evolving democratic ethos in the United States. As the nation grew and developed, there was an increasing emphasis on the principles of democracy and representative government. The expansion of suffrage and the growing importance of public opinion may have pressured state legislatures to align their practices with the democratic ideals that were becoming more deeply entrenched in American political culture. By allowing the public to choose presidential electors through popular vote, state legislatures could have been responding to the demands of a more politically engaged and enfranchised populace.

Another factor that might have influenced this shift is the practical and political benefits of popular elections. By adopting the popular vote method for selecting electors, state legislatures could potentially enhance the legitimacy and stability of the electoral process. This approach also reduces the risk of partisan manipulation and political conflicts that might arise from legislative selection. Additionally, allowing the popular vote to determine electors can serve as a means for state legislators to build and maintain political support, as it aligns them more closely with the preferences and interests of their constituents.

Despite these potential explanations, the precise reasons behind this significant shift remain elusive. I am not aware of a book or article that explains why states legislatures gave up their power to pick presidential electors. I certainly would like to know the answer to this question.

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