Welcome back to The Monkey Cage’s weekly presentation of Founding Principles, a series of short videos designed to explain American government and how it works — in theory, and in practice. The first five episodes looked at the basic structure of the government created by the U.S. Constitution — the separation of powers between its levels and across its branches, and then at each of those branches in turn: Congress, the presidency and the judiciary.
Then we turned to the ways that “we, the people,” interact with that government, first with public opinion and the media. We’ve arrived now at the first installment of two parts on U.S. elections. This time, we’ll look at the structure of our electoral system; next week, the focus is on voter behavior and what drives electoral choice.
This episode looks particularly at the 537 people elected to federal office, examining the way House, Senate and presidential elections are organized, and the kinds of representation that results. The framers knew that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” as James Madison put it in Federalist #10. And so the structural separation of powers was buttressed by giving each group of elected officials with different constituencies, which added more checks and balances.
The House was to be “the people’s House,” with direct connections with the public. It had a short two-year term and the largest eligible electorate of any of the parts of government. The Senate would be elected by state legislatures until 1913, with six-year staggered terms allowing senators to serve as the “saucer” to cool the hot tea produced by the House. The president, of course, was chosen by the electoral college – and the states could decide how, in turn, to choose the electors.
Exactly who is represented matters too. The Constitution doesn’t specifically mention congressional districts, but by the 1840s the idea of giving each representative in a state a single geographically defined piece of turf had pretty much taken hold. (Gerrymandering started even earlier.)
That matters because – as noted in the series’ discussion of Congress — each representative technically only answers to his or her own constituency. For senators, though, that constituency is statewide — and you can’t redistrict a state. So senators’ constituencies are almost always more diverse than those of House members.
And for presidents, as the 2016 election reminded us, the key number is not the popular vote total but the magic path to 270 votes in the state-based electoral college. There’s nothing in the Constitution about presidential nominations; nothing about political parties. Just the electoral college, one of the classic compromises embedded in that document.
Over time, all of these systems have evolved to reflect an increasingly open system of participation – these days a far larger part of the population can vote, not only to choose the final winner but each party nominee as well. So now we need to fit voters themselves into the equation – for that, see you next week.