Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Electoral College: Time For A Change? – Part III

If you are reading this on September 17 th, you might consider celebrating by raising a glass of wine or setting off some fireworks. That date is the 225 th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution of The United States by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. That covenant was established as the law of the country with its final ratification by the states on September 21 st, 1788. With the Electoral College process ensconced in the Constitution, a presidential election was immediately initiated in that year, but the actual voting was not completed until the following year. This resulted in a bit of useless but interesting trivia––the fact that 1789 is the only election year that is not a multiple of four.

Electoral College rules gave each state elector two votes, one for president and one for vice president. The candidate that received the majority of the votes became president, and the runner-up became vice president. In that 1789 election, George Washington was so popular he basically ran unopposed. As a result, all 69 electors cast one vote each for Washington, winning him the election. The balances of the votes were split among 11 candidates with John Adams receiving the most, thus becoming vice-president. In the second election in 1792 both men were reelected. The Electoral College functioned as planned in each of those elections, however, the 1796 election exposed one of its vulnerabilities.

The Genesis of Political Parties

As that election approached, George Washington refused a third term in office and the incumbent Vice President, John Adams, became a candidate for President. Thomas Pinckney, former Governor of South Carolina joined him on the Federalist Party ticket. Their respective opponents were Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr on the Democratic-Republican ticket. This was the first partisan contested election that involved political parties.

Ironically, the concept of political parties becoming involved in the country’s electoral process was originally abhorrent to the nation’s founders. Some years before the Convention, John Adams declared, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Washington believed that such parties would only fracture our nation, and in his farewell address, he asserted that the formation of political parties would “render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” How about those for prescient views? Despite such trepidation, the Founding Fathers wrote nothing about banning political parties in the Constitution. In retrospect, that might have been their first mistake, but they were certainly perceptive in their beliefs.

Unexpected Consequences

The 1796 elections did not go as smoothly. The sudden incursion of political parties created an acrimonious atmosphere that deteriorated into unsavory name-calling, and exaggerated accusations by both parties. Although Adams, supported by the Federalist Party, won the presidency with the most Electoral College votes, Thomas Jefferson, backed by the Democratic-Republican Party received more electoral votes than Pinckney, Adam’s supposed running mate. So despite the fact that he belonged to Adam’s oppositon party, Jefferson was elected Vice President.

As a result of the Electoral College balloting formula, the nation’s top two executives represented not only widely disparate views, but also two opposing political parties. Since the creation of political parties was not anticipated during the Constitutional Convention debate, this outcome was an inconvenient and unwelcome surprise.

Dirty, Dirtier, Dirtiest

The next election, that of 1800, developed additional unintended consequences related to the Electoral College model. That resulted from the proliferation, and intensifying power and influence of political parties. On that latter issue, in addition to Washington’s comments during his farewell address to the nation in 1796 (mentioned above), he issued a warning to future leaders about political parties, remarking that “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

While today’s voters are unfortunately fully accustomed to the “spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension” and “the perpetration of the most horrid enormities” so vividly evident in the current political arena, most are not aware of the vituperative aspersions, and malicious slanders that occurred during the 1800 election. Some have termed that election one of the dirtiest of all time. The general view of our founding fathers as a group of aristocratic, gracious, and civil gentlemen in fact is a naïve fantasy.

In modern times, when a political commercial appears, it is often followed by the statement, “I am (name of the candidate) and I approve this message.” Certainly one of the most revered founders of the country was Thomas Jefferson. Can you imagine Jefferson reciting those words after this statement describing his opponent John Adams, the sitting President of the United States? Adams was referred to as a "hideous hermaphroditical character that has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

While Jefferson himself did not make that statement, the famed pamphleteer James Callendar, who had been secretly hired by Jefferson in his campaign to unseat John Adams, wrote it. (Ironically, a few years later, Callendar turned against Jefferson, reporting in a series of articles that Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings). Adams was also called “a fool, a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward”.

Adams' surrogates provided an equally inflammatory response in a Federalist publication that described Jefferson as, “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow; the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Allegations were made that he cheated his British creditors, was a supporter of French radicalism, and assassinations of the aristocracy, and that he made a habit out of sleeping with his female slaves. And you thought that today’s elections symbolize dirty politics?

Vice President Who?

During this election (1800) a funny thing happened on the way to the Electoral College. The final vote for the presidency was quite clear. Jefferson won with 73 electoral votes to Adams’ 65. There was only one problem––despite the fact that Aaron Burr was running as Jefferson’s vice-president, he also ended up with 73 votes. That meant that both were tied for the presidency, a situation seen as improbable at the time of the creation of the Electoral College. Nevertheless, this possibility was accounted for within the Constitution––in case of a tie, the final vote would be determined by the House of Representatives. The machinations, maneuvers and political intrigues that took place during the voting process in the House required days of debate, and 36 voting counts before Jefferson was declared the winner.

(Despite his outward hatred of Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton played a large role in getting him elected, since his animosity toward Aaron Burr was even greater. This was only one of the ongoing acrimonies that ultimately led to the fateful duel between Hamilton and Burr.)

Recognizing the faulty format of the Electoral College rules that first led to the election of a President from one party, and a Vice-President from another, and then a tied vote for two candidates from the same party, on December 9, 1803, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by the Congress. Just six months later, on June 15, 1804, the 12 th amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the states, correcting both problems.


Since the establishment of the Electoral College there have been various degrees of dissatisfaction with the concept. In fact, in the over 200 years since its inception, there have been more proposals (700 of them) for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. Most of the propositions focus on a format that would enable a national popular vote (NPV)––in other words the replacement (or possibly the enhancement) of the Electoral College format with the establishment of the concept of “one person, one vote.” However, there is a major obstacle to the accomplishment of that objective. First, both houses of Congress would have to pass an appropriate amendment to the Constitution with a two-thirds majority. The more difficult requirement is that legislatures in 38 of 50 states must ratify it.

Notwithstanding those qualifications, what if there is a way to by-pass those Constitutional prerequisites? Perhaps more importantly, what are the arguments for and against the Electoral College? Next month we will cover both questions.

Author’s Note: My thanks to Dr. Dan Fishkoff for suggesting this topic as the subject for this column.


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