Reviewing U.S. Electoral College Process
Many Americans continue to make disparaging remarks about the role the United States Electoral College plays in presidential races.
But modern day races cannot top the election of 1800, when four candidates were vying for the office and one party had two candidates basically in a tie for the office.
In 1800, the popular vote was more of a guideline and members of the U.S. Electoral College were primarily named by state legislatures. In addition, the election befuddled a system set up to select a president without the candidates belonging to a political party.
George Washington felt that forming political parties would be the death of the United States. Due to his influence, the formation of parties was delayed.
But by the time of Washington's death in late 1799, political parties had formed, with the Republican Democrats on one side and the Federalists on the other.
Later in the century, the Federalists would fade away and the Republican Democrats would become the Democratic Party.
The Republican Party came into being around 1855,. The Republicans' first elected president was Abraham Lincoln.
In the 1800 election, the political parties each nominated two candidates for president. The Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The Federalists nominated incumbent John Adams and Charles Pinckney.
In 1800, members of the electoral college cast votes for two candidates. One would be for a favorite son, the other for a viable national candidate.
The election became a long process after the electors cast ballots on Dec. 3, 1800. When the votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr had received 73 votes each, while Adams had 65 and Pinckney 64.
Before 1800, the candidate getting the most votes was named president, with the second place man becoming the vice president.
The 1800 presidential race became a situation where two allied men were tied for the highest office in the land. The election came down to what the U.S. House of Representatives would do, based on constitutional parameters, to pick the president.
Voting in the House began on Feb. 11 and lasted for four days. The U.S. Constitution stated that the ballots could not be counted by the number of congressmen voting for a candidate. Instead, a state's delegation had to cast a group ballot that counted as one vote toward the election of a president.
In order to earn 33 ballots, Jefferson carried eight states, while Burr had six. Two state delegations were deadlocked and, therefore, uncommitted. To win the required majority, Jefferson had to get one more state's vote.
The political wrangling was monumental. The Federalists offered all kinds of terms to get Burr elected despite his party affiliation.Mudslinging and lies were told left and right.
Finally, the only congressman from Delaware voted to abstain on Sunday. The action gave Burr one less ballot and Jefferson won the majority vote.
The next year, the U.S. Congress changed the electoral college and the process has operated in a similary way for 200 years.
Opponents to the system point out that there have been presidents elected who have not won the popular vote. The opponents complain that the system "depresses voter turnout" and fails to reflect the popular will of the people of the United States.
Despite the objections, supporters of the U.S. Electoral College counter with strong arguments for supporting it, reasons that often make little sense until one investigates the situation. They bring out four basic points to support their view.
First proponents of the system point out that the electoral college contributes to the cohesiveness of the country by requiring the popular support for a candidate be spread out over the entire country rather than from one region or two. They argue that the way the system is set up now gives rural states more say than their small population would in a popular vote scenario. Proponents argue to, that because of the broad range of support needed, the electoral college is the reason most presidential candidates pick someone from outside their own region of the country for their vice presidential running mate.
Secondly they point out that the electoral college also enhances the status of minority groups within the union. That is because even a small group of minority voters can influence the sway of an entire states electoral college if they work together. A good example of this are states that have high levels of ethnic minorities. Many of the states that have these kinds of groups also are also large states, so the trade off is even greater. Other groups such as trade unions, activist groups in a certain areas or agricultural interests can influence a states entire balloting process as well.
Third, while many people put down the two party system, defenders of the electoral college see it as a good thing, a tradition that the electoral college as it is set up, protects. This they say adds to the- stability of the American political system. They reason that minor parties in other democracies often raise cane with the countries stability, whereas it would be almost impossible for a minor or new party in the United States to get a true minority candidate elected to the presidency. The system also forces the major parties to accept minority groups and their views into the existing parties, largely because they want to continue to have a majority to win an election and that is often done by combining smaller groups into a single unifying force.
The final argument is that while the electoral college is part of the federal system of elections, the power it gets comes from the states themselves. The college leaves the important political power with the states because they determine the way their house of representative boundaries are drawn up and how they pick the electors. Also, for the smaller states they have equal representation in at least a part of the electoral college because every state has two senators. Supporters see the election actually being controlled by the states for these reasons, rather than by a popular federal vote that would be centralized in Washington D.C. Proponents argue that states rights should take precedent over minority rights when it comes to elections, and that this system does that. Under a popular vote scenario, minority parties would become the power to make or break an election, rather than to aide the process.
Those that back the electoral college also say that the system cuts down on voter fraud and if eliminated for a popular vote scenario could lead to "true" minority presidents with well less than 50% of the vote to elect them if the vote was split a number of ways.
Over the years it has been said that the early founders of the United States decided on the electoral college because they wondered if the common man had the intelligence to properly elect a leader for the country. While the direct proof of that intent has never been uncovered, doubt lingers there about it, despite claims they set it up due more to regional differences than to disregard citizens wills.
The electoral college will always have challengers who claim it takes away the popular will, particularly in election years with close elections.
On the other hand those who see it as an institution that has worked pretty well over the past 200 years, always solving problems as it wound its way through history and keeping revolution at bay ask the question "Why change it?"
Editors note: This is the second and final installment in a series on the electoral college.