Ancient States and Representative Government: Greek and Roman Models for the Electoral College

Yesterday, the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota announced the forthcoming publication of a small book on the Electoral College: Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College edited by Eric Burin. Do check out Dr. Burin’s trailer for the book and his historical perspectives on the electoral college: “The Founders Fixed a Broken Electoral College – We Should Too.

You may have noticed that I am listed among the contributors so I sat down this morning and hammered out a draft of my contribution, “Ancient States and Representational Government: Models for the Electoral College.”

It’s below. Please comment on this draft! I am particularly concerned with my representations of the Athenian and Roman assemblies and any help finding historical issues would be great.

Ancient States and Representative Government: Greek and Roman Models for the Electoral College

The framers of the US Constitution looked to antiquity as an inspiration for their own republic. The city-state of Athens during its Classical efflorescence represented a model for democracy, but it was not nearly as compelling as the Roman Republic alternately celebrated by Enlightenment authors and English reformers. Both ancient civilizations offered historical precedents for representative forms of government that allowed the architects of the various colonial and state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution to appeal to a traditions of government outside and older than the rule of the European aristocracy. Neither the Athenian democracy in its various forms nor the Roman Republic offered an exact precedent for the Electoral College, but both recognized the importance of recognizing regional interests in the context of their popular institutions.   

Democratic Athens of the 5th century BC, featured a popular assembly made up of all citizens which generally meant male, property owners, of military age. This assembly met in Athens to vote on whatever legislation that the state required. Over the course of the 7th and 6th centuries BC various institutions served in both the executive role (generally an office called the archon), in judicial roles, and, most importantly for our purpose here, to prepare legislation for the assembly. In the late 6th century, the Athenian politician Cleisthenes negotiated a series of reforms in Athens including the creation of a “Council of 500” which prepared laws for voting in the popular assembly. This council included representatives from each of the major regions governed by the city of Athens. This representative council ensured that each region – the mountains, the plains, and coast – had their interests represented at least in the preparation of legislation for the popular assembly. This served as an important, representative, counterweight to the popular assembly which tended to be biased toward citizens resident in Athens or who could afford time away from their field, businesses, or jobs to attend voting sessions. In this effort to balance regional concerns with the direct democracy of the assembly, Athens produced the first example of a representative council in our Western tradition and regional representation was essential to this concept. 

Whatever the innovation present in democratic Athens, the Roman Republic provided a far more compelling and influential model for the framers of the US Constitution. Rome, like Athens, did not have a written constitution to guide its governmental structure, but we know enough about how it functioned from historians in antiquity. The Roman Republic possessed an array of assemblies and councils each with specific functions and advantages to particular groups. Unlike Athens, there was far less emphasis on the democratic assembly and a fundamental commitment to the republican practice of voting blocks which represented groups of citizens within Roman society. The two most significant of these councils were the comitia centuriata and the comitia tributa. In the comitia centuriata, Roman citizens were grouped into first 193 and then 373 centuries according to wealth. Each century was a voting block and the majority of voters within the century decided the vote of that century. The wealthiest citizens were divided into more centuries than the poorest giving them more voting blocks. Moreover, the wealthiest centuries voted first resulting in most elections being decided long before the poorest blocks voted, although reformers consistently tried to shift the balance toward the poorest voters.

The poorest voters tended to congregate in the city of Rome, and this marginalized their political influence in other major assembly, the comitia tributa, which was organized according to according to region of residence. The city of Rome consisted of four urban “tribes” whereas the surrounding regions, eventually expanded to include all of Italy, comprised an addition 31. Each of the 35 tribes had a single vote with the 31 rural tribes tending to represent the interests of wealthier, rural landowners. Like in the comitia centuriata, the majority of tribes carried decisions in this assembly. In fact, the politically marginal character of the urban tribes was such that a punishment for certain kind of crimes included moving the guilty individual’s tribal affiliation from a rural to an urban tribe to affect a kind of political disenfranchisement. Like in Athens, regional concerns play a role in managing the political balance of the Roman Republic. 

While neither the representative council in Cleisthenic Athens or the comitia tributa in republican Rome represented a precise analog to the Electoral College, but the Electoral College and the Roman assemblies shared the concept of voting blocks that is, in some appraisals, central to the idea of republican governance. For Rome, the comitia tributa also allowed for the state to expand voting and citizen rights into newly conquered territories while maintaining the privileges of the traditional aristocracy through their control of the majority of tribes. While this may appear to be a regressive tactic designed to conserve the political power of the traditional Roman elite, it also allowed the Roman state to expand political rights to new populations in ways that the more direct democracy in Athens did not allow. By slotting new citizens into existing tribes or sequestering them into a small number of tribes, the Roman elite also ensured the stability of the state even during times of expansion.

Today, political commentators like to look to Rome and Athens to predict or make sense of the American political trajectory. This makes sense, of course, because both the Roman Republic and the democracy of Athens ultimately failed, and their failures allow for sensationally tragic presentations of our country’s political fate set amid the fundamental conservatism of the republican political tradition. Whether the US will fail because of this adherence to these outmoded republican practices or find within them stability during times of dynamic change is beyond the limited gaze of the historian’s craft.

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