Sunday, July 01, 2012

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

You are possibly already thinking about whom you are going to vote for in the November presidential election. In fact, you’ve probably already made your decision in the belief that your vote will be counted along with the votes of some 133 million others (the total who voted in 2008), most of whom assume that the candidate receiving the most votes will win the election. Wrong!

When creating the Constitution, in their infinite wisdom, the founders of the country decided that at least for the presidential election, awarding the election strictly on the basis of the popular majority vote was inadvisable. The fact that the founders came to that decision has been a contentious issue over the years, and perhaps even more so recently, when in 2000, Al Gore won the majority vote by 543,816 votes but the presidency was awarded to George W. Bush by a majority of the electoral vote. (Of course the Supreme Court can take the credit for that decision.)

History records three other elections where the winner of the popular majority vote lost the election based on the vote of the electoral college: John Quincy Adams won the popular vote by 44,804 votes but lost to Andrew Jackson in 1824; Rutherford B. Hayes who won by 264,292 votes but lost to Samuel J. Tilden in 1876; Benjamin Harrison who won by 95,713 votes but lost to Grover Cleveland in 1888.

The Mandate

Simply put, the actual voting process mandated during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 determined, as described by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers: “The voters of each state shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President.” The term “Electoral College” has never appeared in the Constitution. As described above, that document initially referred only to “electors.” The “college” phrase came into usage in the early 1800’s, and was finally inserted into the Constitution in 1845, but as “the college of electors.”

That the Electoral College decision was contentious from the very beginning is confirmed by the fact that the “Committee of Detail,” formed by the convention to arbitrate the presidential election process took six weeks and 60 ballots before a final agreement was achieved. So why was this decision so controversial?

The Background

Around the time of the Constitutional Convention that convened in Philadelphia in 1787, the country was not as egalitarian as most of us believe. With a total population less than 4 million, of which about 20 percent were slaves, the politico-economic life was strongly influenced, if not dominated, by a relatively small cadre of lawyers, landowners, bankers, shippers, and merchants. This group also exercised a strong influence over local newspapers––the elite so to speak.

Other than the state of Pennsylvania, you could not vote unless you were a white male property owner, a prerequisite met by perhaps less than 10 percent of the population. In most states, in order to hold office, a candidate was required to have a minimum amount of assets. In South Carolina for example, that was $1 million in today’s dollars. In other states a lower yet still substantial wealth was required. With the exception of New York and Virginia, every state had a religious test for office holding, with most requiring that an office holder be Protestant.

Here is a quote from famous historian, Merrill Jensen: “Most historians say little about the plight of the common people in early America. Most of the population consisted of poor freeholders, tenants, and indentured hands (the latter trapped in servitude for many years). A study of Delaware farms at about the time of the Constitutional Convention found that the typical farm family might have a large plot of land but little else, surviving in a one-room house or log cabin, no barns, sheds, draft animals, or machinery. The farmer and his family pulled the plow.” Remember, in those days America was primarily an agrarian society.

Despite the fact that children were an integral part of a family’s farming activities, laboring alongside the father, education was a valued commodity. Although some middle class and most of the upper class children could attend various types of schools, home schooling was the norm in the 18 th and early 19th century, most children went to work in the fields, mines or factories, sometimes beginning as young as five, six or seven years old. Before the existence of free public schools and universal public education, few parents could afford to send their children to so-called common schools, where they had to pay part of the costs of school maintenance, teacher’s salaries, books and other materials.

The Disparities

As a result, and as might be expected, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were not exactly typical of the average American of the time. Two thirds were lawyers, one quarter owned large plantations (in most cases a metaphor for slaveholders), and several were businessmen or merchants. Most of them had financial resources that ranged from good to excellent.

When comparing the status, education, and wealth between the “common man” and the delegates to the Convention, the disparity becomes obvious. When considering the presidential election process, the concern was, at least to some degree, typified by the trepidation enunciated by delegate Elbridge Gerry (destined to become vice president under James Madison), “A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union, and acting in concert, to delude them into any appointment.” (He is also the originator of the redistricting system that bears his name––gerrymandering.) There existed a concern about the capability of voters in a national election to rationally or knowledgeably exercise their right to vote.

This inherent suspicion of what might be termed the “common man,” by the not so common group of men who attended the Convention, led to a conviction that the average citizen (some called them “the rabble”) was incapable of making educated and coherent voting decisions. In other words, a system that promoted “pure” democracy in the voting process (the popular vote) came under question, with far reaching consequences.

While that skeptical view was not necessarily universally accepted, George Mason, a highly regarded Virginia politician, and one of the five most frequent speakers at the convention, voiced the more popular argument. He stated, “the extent of the country renders it impossible, that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates.”

This point is well grounded. Remember, the distance from Maine to Georgia was some 1200 miles, with transportation limited to the horse and carriage. It took from six to nine days to travel from New York to Boston, and that was on reasonably good roads. Communication, especially long distance was virtually non-existent. It took ten days for news of George Washington’s death to travel from Mt. Vernon to Boston, and that was expedited. It was impossible to conduct national campaigns that would reach and inform every citizen.

The Southern Vote

During the Constitutional Convention, the major argument against direct elections came from the Southern states. They faced a dilemma because their large slave population was prohibited (by the state) from voting. As a result, the Northern states argued that slaves would not be counted for the purpose of determining the number of representatives each state had in Congress, nor would they be counted as part of the presidential voting process. The Southern states then refused to consider signing the Constitution unless each slave was included in the count as one person. This problem was resolved through the use of a word that is anathema to some politicians today––compromise. (In fact there would be no Constitution were it not for a whole series of compromises.)

After much debate, it was agreed that each slave would be considered as three-fifths of a person, giving rise to the phrase The Three-Fifths Compromise. In essence, this gave the Southern states proportionately more seats in the House of Representatives than their actual voting population.

Here is a comment I came across that characterizes that decision: “The real horror of the three-fifths rule is not so much that a slave is seen as three-fifths of a man. It is that white men who enslave their fellow human beings are given extra political power by virtue of enslaving their fellow human beings, and at their expense.”

Although the southern states were thus satisfied, the Committee became deadlocked as to the actual presidential election procedure. The choice became between a direct popular vote and election by Congress. Disagreement on those two options led to a proposal that resulted in another compromise, one that would have the president be "chosen by Electors to be chosen by the people of the several States." That last-minute compromise was how the Electoral College was born.

Next month, a more detailed description of how the Electoral College functions will be provided as well as a discussion as to whether or not a switch to a popular direct vote would be more democratic and more effective.

On that latter possibility, your opinion probably depends on whether you agree with H.L. Mencken, one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. He famously said, “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”