The Connecticut effect: the great compromise of 1787 and the history of small state impact on Electoral College outcomes

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Author: Todd Estes
Date: Summer 2011
From: The Historian(Vol. 73, Issue 2)
Publisher: Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 11,559 words
Lexile Measure: 1590L

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Two MAJOR COMPROMISES reached at the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention affected the Electoral College. Of these two, scholars have focused on the Three-Fifths Compromise, which apportioned representatives by allowing slave-holding states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person. Thereby Southern slave states augmented their numbers in the House of Representatives. Since the number of votes in the Electoral College to which a state was entitled was determined by the size of its House and Senate delegation, the compromise also added to Southern states' share of the vote for President. Garry Wills has suggested that Thomas Jefferson owed his victory in 1800 in part to these additional electoral votes awarded to the Southern states. (1) Since electoral votes reflected the state's number of congressmen, the Three-Fifths Compromise artificially inflated the electoral influence of slave-holding states by as many as twelve votes. At the time, Federalists claimed that these so-called "Negro electors" cost John Adams the election. (2)

But the Three-Fifths Compromise was not the only deal to emerge from the Philadelphia Convention. Even more significant for subsequent presidential elections, since it continues in operation to the present day, was the Connecticut Compromise (or Great Compromise), which resolved a standoff between large and small states over representation in Congress. This compromise, settled at the convention on 16 July 1787, gave all states equal representation in the Senate, thus reassuring the small states that they would not be outvoted in both houses by the large states. The Compromise paired equality of representation in the upper house with proportional representation in the lower. A few weeks later, when the Convention delegates turned to the creation of the presidency, the familiar Connecticut Compromise principle was invoked a second time. The principle of protecting the small states through equality of representation in the Senate was thus extended to the practice of choosing the president in the Electoral College. As one scholar astutely observed, the creation of the Electoral College was "simply a second round of the Connecticut Compromise in settling large state-small state differences." (3) The mechanics of choosing presidents thus benefited the smaller states, guaranteeing them a greater proportion of electoral power than they should have enjoyed on the basis of their population numbers alone.

The fact that representation in the Electoral College incorporated the principle of state equality in the Senate meant that even the smallest states could have no fewer than three electoral votes. (4) In the House of Representatives, Virginia (the most populous state at the time) had ten representatives while Delaware (the least populous) had one representative, but the extension of the Connecticut Compromise principle meant that in choosing a president, Virginia received twelve electoral votes and Delaware three: Delaware and other small states gained a much greater voice in selecting presidents relative to larger states. Sparsely populated states with only one representative received two additional electoral votes, tripling their relative power when it came to choosing presidents. States that had two representatives cast four electoral votes, doubling their...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A260060595