A Harvard history professor explores the strange quirk in American democracy known as the Electoral College, investigating its tangled origins at the Constitutional Convention, the efforts from 1800 to 2020 to abolish or significantly reform it, and why each effort has failed. Yet he offers encouragement to those hoping to produce change in the system, considering alternatives to Congressional action.
One of the chief virtues of Alexander Keyssar’s remarkable new book...is that it conclusively demonstrates the absurdity of preserving an institution that has been so contentious throughout US history and has not infrequently produced results that defied the popular will ... a scholarly masterpiece. No other historian has so persuasively explained the utter failure to ditch or change a process that, as he puts it, 'is ill understood by many Americans, bewildering to nearly everyone abroad, and [was] never imitated by another country' ... Keyssar has crafted an absorbing, if dispiriting, narrative about the durable obstacles to structural change in the United States ... Keyssar reveals throughout his book how complex historical wisdom can be. Rarely does he offer just a single explanation for why the various efforts to reform the Electoral College or do away with it have failed to gain the necessary votes in Congress or why, for years at a stretch, their proponents saw little point in trying. The impression he leaves is of a polity in which incremental moves that enhance democracy, like the Voting Rights Act, are possible, while efforts to cure the fundamental infirmities of the system keep coming up against such barriers as the 'balance of power between the states and the national government'[.]
... comprehensive and full of historical insight. Even specialists in political and constitutional history will encounter surprises. But in telling this story it’s impossible to avoid repetition. Madison described the debates about the presidency at the constitutional convention as ‘tedious and reiterated’, a comment that can be applied to the entire history of efforts at reform. The problem is exacerbated by the book’s partly chronological, partly thematic structure.
... this is clearly a scholarly book that will appeal most to specialists and policymakers. Amid the obviously deeply researched scholarship, Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard, clearly explains the numerous objections to the Electoral College and the reasons those objections have never gained enough traction for reform to occur ... The author, who also offers cogent discussions of the role that race has played over the decades, believes the only way to parse the enduring illogic of a flawed system is the close study of historical forces. General readers may skim some sections, but the book contains solid, useful information to learn before the 2020 election.