FACT CHECK: Did James Madison Call The Electoral College ‘Evil’?

Aryssa Damron | Fact Check Reporter

CNN tweeted Wednesday that founding father James Madison called the Electoral College “evil.”

Verdict: False

CNN took a quote from Madison out of context. The House of Representatives gets to choose the president if no candidates earn a majority of the vote in the Electoral College, and Madison was being critical of this “back up” procedure, not the Electoral College itself.

Fact Check:

Several Democratic candidates for president have discussed the idea of abolishing the Electoral College, which led CNN’s John Avlon to discuss the topic Wednesday on the network’s “Reality Check” segment.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said at a CNN town hall in Mississippi that she wanted to make sure that “every vote matters.” “And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College,” she said.

Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who is running for president, said on “CBS This Morning” that “the Electoral College needs to go, because it’s made our society less and less democratic.” Other Democratic contenders like Sen. Kamala Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke have suggested that they are open to eliminating the electoral system.

To introduce Avlon’s segment, CNN host Erica Hill teased that there was a man who “wore a wig and helped write the Constitution” who “really hated the Electoral College, probably even more than Elizabeth Warren.”

“Is this just a case of Dems trying to change the rules because they’ve won the popular vote but lost the presidency twice so far this century? Is this an insult to the founding fathers?” Avlon asked. “It was the subject of intense debate among the founders. The biggest controversy was the winner-take-all structure. James Madison, not a fan.”

Avlon then showed a quote from Madison that read, “At the present period, the evil is at its maximum.”

CNN clipped the segment and shared it on social media. “The electoral college has been debated since the days of James Madison, who called it ‘evil,'” it said on Facebook.

The quote comes from a letter Madison wrote about the Electoral College in 1823, but CNN took his remarks out of context. In reality, he wasn’t calling the system “evil.”

If none of the candidates running for president receive a majority of the vote in the Electoral College, the duty to elect the president falls to the House. This latter process is what Madison was criticizing. The comment was not an indictment of the electoral system itself, but rather a criticism of the “back up” measure put in place to elect the president.

Only two presidential elections have been decided in this way – the elections of 1800 and 1824.

“The ‘evil’ to which Madison referred in this context would rear its head only when presidential elections were decided in the House of Representatives, and not in the normal operations of the electoral college,” Angela Kreider of the Papers of James Madison project told The Daily Caller in an email.

When an election did go to the House, state delegations voted together, one vote per state, to pick a winner.

Even though Madison thought this process was “evil,” he thought that as states’ populations grew, as they have in the nearly two centuries since he penned the letter, the “evil” would be curbed.

“Specifically, Madison was concerned that when new states had small populations that qualified them for only one or two seats in the House, those representatives could be more easily corrupted in presidential balloting than larger groups of representatives from more populous states. He believed that this ‘evil’ would quickly diminish as the populations of new states rapidly increased,” Kreider said.

CNN’s incorrect use of this quote misrepresents Madison’s views on the Electoral College. According to the writings of Donald Dewey, the former associate editor of “The Papers of James Madison,” although Madison was in some ways critical of how the president was elected, he spent “as much effort in defending the electoral system provided in the Constitution as seeking improvements on it.”

Tara Ross, author of “The Indispensible Electoral College,” told the Caller that Madison was actually a member of the committee that drafted the language establishing the Electoral College. Although Madison at one point said that, in principle, “the people at large” are “fittest” to choose the president, he also later cautioned against direct elections, saying in an 1826 letter, “If the election be referred immediately to the people, however they may be liable to an excess of excitement on particular occasions.”

“It is true that Madison, like other members of the Constitutional Convention, considered the so-called Russian-style direct election, but like the others he ultimately rejected it as not consistent with the ideas of federalism set forth in the rest of the Constitution,” Professor Robert Hardaway of the University of Denver College of Law told the Caller in an email.

“Madison is not condemning the Electoral College in itself but merely supporting an improvement in the process by which it functions,” Fergus Bordewich, the author of “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government,” told the Caller in an email.

Madison supported the idea of having electors to the Electoral College selected on a district, not statewide, basis. 

The Electoral College is established in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Article II says that “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.”

In other words, the number of electors each state receives is equal to its two senators plus its representatives in the House, which vary by population size. The states with the most electoral votes currently are California (55), Texas (38), New York (29) and Florida (29).

CNN also failed to mention that Madison’s use of the word “evil” may not have meant what the network implied in the segment.

“It is also important to realize that the word ‘evil’ did not by any means always have the intense and absolute connotation then that it does today. In political writing, it mostly meant something closer to ‘deficit,’ ‘problem,’ or ‘shortcoming’ than it did something diabolical or truly awful. Its use by JM does not add up to a severe indictment of the system,” Bordewich told the Caller.

President Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 by the Electoral College (304 votes to Clinton’s 227) despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. There have been five instances of the president winning the Electoral College and losing the popular vote – 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016.

As mentioned by CNN in its segment, there is a movement to reform the electoral college called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The group’s goal is to get states to agree to cast their electoral votes for whatever candidate wins the overall popular vote. While some states are on board with the agreement, it would not take effect until states comprising at least 270 electoral votes (the number required to win the Electoral College) were a part of the compact.

Neither Avlon nor CNN responded to a request for comment.

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Aryssa Damron

Fact Check Reporter