Electoral votes and the Presidency
"One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." Plato
The year was 1888. Benjamin Harrison was running against incumbent Grover Cleveland for president. While neither of these presidential candidates fall into the category of well known occupants of the presidency like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy, that particular election was one of the most clear cut instances of the electoral college working contrary to the popular vote.
Cleveland was able to run up a huge popular vote in 18 states while Harrison won a bare majority in 20 states. When all the 11,381,032 votes that had been cast were counted, Cleveland had actually beaten Harrison by 110,476 votes. Yet when the electoral college posted their vote that December, Cleveland was out of office and Harrison would serve four years, only to be ousted by Cleveland in the election of 1892 when he became the only president to hold two terms of office not in consecutive order.
This was not the first instance of the electoral college deciding over popular vote who would be president of the United States, nor would it be the last. People often marvel at how well a document, the Constitution of the United States, that was put together almost 215 years ago has continued to serve the nation, despite the changes in the society, technology and government growth. Yet when they talk about the electoral college, it is seldom in the positive.
At each close presidential election, the electoral college is always used by the media and the losing party as a whipping boy for what is wrong with the American election system. At times that label may have been well deserved, but at others it's existence may have preserved the union as people know it today.
The electoral college was formed at a time when the United States was very small as well as in flux. There were only 13 states, amalgamated under a very loose confederation where each were worried not only about each others power and influence, but also were opposed to any strong central government telling them what to do. At the time there were only a little over four million people in the country, and they were cast over a thousand miles of Atlantic coastline. The communications were also poor; only mail existed at the time. The telegraph had not been invented yet.
On top of that the theory of politics at the time sought to find the right person for the office, not to pick out one seeking it. In this vein, political parties were considered problematic and a national campaign was reprehensible, if not actually impossible.
The founding fathers were also concerned about a balance of power between congress and the executive branch. In searching for the right way to elect a president there were four basic ideas put forth concerning a means to achieve it.
The first idea was one in which congress would directly choose the president. That was eliminated because it was felt that it would cause too much derision within the bodies of the legislative branch and could affect the balance of power between two of the branches that were trying to achieve a "check and balance" system of power. In other words a standing president might cater too much toward the representatives instead of being concerned for the good of the country and it's citizens.
The second idea was to have each of the state legislatures elect the president. However, again this proposal was looked upon as problematic because presidents then may become beholden to certain legislatures in selected states. He might also punish those states that did not choose to elect him.
Benjamin Harrison was elected in 1888 despite a clear popular vote win by his opponent Grover Cleveland.
The third idea, and one that persists in those who wish to abolish the electoral college today, is to elect a president by direct popular vote. At that time, as stated above, there was poor communication throughout the country. That would mean voters would have little information about candidates outside their state or region, and "favorite son" elections might take place, putting not the best candidate in the office but the one that lived in the most populous area. With that there might also truly be "minority" presidents" elected, since in those days political parties did not exist and at each election a number of strong candidates were on the ballot.
The final idea was to have a College of Electors pick the president. The idea came from the Roman Republic where adult male citizens of Rome were divided into "Centuries" (or groups of 100). Each Centurie could cast one vote on proposals from the Roman Senate. In the case of the electoral college each state became the voting group with a certain number of votes to place for president based on that state's congressional delegation. This was the idea that struck a cord with the constitutional convention delegates.
With that idea in place, the founders of the constitution had to find a way to make it work, without corruption or bias if possible. Originally the electors themselves were chosen by the state, the meeting to cast the votes for president took place in the state itself rather than at one large meeting in the capitol and each elector had to put in two ballots with at least one of them being someone from outside their state (to eliminate the "favorite son" syndrome). In those days the man with the most electoral votes (and it had to be over 50 percent) won the presidency and the second place candidate became vice president. If there was a tie or no clear cut winner, the House of Representatives would choose who would be president out of the top five contenders. But when it came to that situation, it wasn't done by the total vote of congressional districts, each state only got one vote from it's entire delegation and the winner had to gather a majority of votes. The vice president would go to the person with the second most electoral votes, or if there were a tie there, they would be elected by the House in the same manner as the president.
That original system lasted for four presidential elections, when in 1800, after political parties had begun to form, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Buff tied in the electoral college vote. Both belonged to the newly formed Democratic- Republican Party. The House finally voted in Jefferson's favor, but not without a lot of gnashing of teeth and political fallout. Much of the political positioning to get Jefferson into the office had exposed the system for what it was, a program designed to deal with past political reality, not the present.
So in 1801 the 12th Amendment to the United States Constitution set up the electoral college as we know it today. It changed how electors voted (they must now cast one ballot for president and one for vice president) and in the case of a tie for president the House chooses the president out of the top three candidates and in the case of a vice presidential tie the Senate chooses in the same manner.
At the time there were a few people that felt the simplest solution was to go to direct vote, but communication problems still existed in the new country, and so it was never seriously considered.
Today the electoral college remains much as it was adopted in 1800, although a few changes have been made in some of the ways electors are selected. Today electors are selected almost everywhere by the vote that is cast in congressional districts. This is done not by directly voting for electors on the ballot but by indirectly voting for them voting for a particular presidential and vice presidential candidate on the ballot.
Another trend that has been adopted by all states today is the winner take all system. Simply it is as the state goes, so goes the electors. If one candidate wins the popular vote in a state, then all the votes go to that candidate. That is one of the main things that critics of the system object to.
However, nothing is really ever set in concrete. Individuals continue to campaign election after election to have the system changed to a process of popular vote.
Will this election between John McCain and Barack Obama be another of those that test the electoral college system? It's hard to tell, but surely this one or one in the future will once again bring up the question of whether popular vote should be the marker for picking a new president.