Prospects for the Electoral College after Election 2000

 

Jennifer Truran Rothwell

The Electoral College ... is the very model of up-to-date constitutional flexibility.

—Martin Diamond1

 

The impetus for abolishing the electoral college is as strong as it is simple. No sane electoral system awards victory to second place.

—Julian E. Davis2

 

Through all the startling twists and turns taken by Election 2000, one thing was agreed upon by all: this election was historic. The election prompted the longest period of post-election limbo without a president-elect since the election of 1876; the only move by a state legislature to declare its own slate of electors since the election of 1876; and the only entry of the Supreme Court into a presidential election in our history, if one does not count the inclusion of five Supreme Court justices on the Electoral Commission that decided the election of 1876. So, maybe it’s not a bad record for an electoral system when more than a century passes without any disputed elections rending the fabric of our nation’s politics. On the other hand, would anyone like to see a replay of Election 2000 any time soon?

It seems likely that the 2000 election will prompt renewed efforts to abolish the electoral college. It seems equally likely that such efforts will fail for the usual reasons—although some kind of electoral college reform may be possible. Consider these op-ed column titles from the post-election period: “Scrap This System,” “No—the System Worked,” “The Electoral College—Unfair from Day One,” “What Did You Expect: The Framers Were Politicians, Too,” and “The Electoral College: What’s the Fix? Take Your Pick.”3

Proposed amendments to abolish the electoral college and replace it with the direct election of the president followed the close elections of 1968 and 1976. A joint resolution for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the electoral college and replace it with a popular vote requiring a 40% plurality or a runoff between the top two candidates is already before Congress.4 Ideas for reform of the electoral college center on replacing the winner-take-all system that now exists in most states with some form of district or proportional representation of the popular vote.

How did the electoral college come into being? What role has it played in disputed elections in the past? What are the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the system? And, finally, what kind of legitimacy can a new president hope to wrest from an election where the popular and electoral votes diverge but remain so close that a fierce partisan battle ensues—as it did in 1876 and again in the year 2000?

 

The Origin of the Electoral College

The question of how to choose the president raised such a thorny problem for the Constitutional Convention that a “Committee of 11”—with one delegate from each state present—was created to deal with it. James Wilson of Pennsylvania called the question “in truth, the most difficult of all on which we have had to decide.”5

James Madison of Virginia took the lead as the Committee of 11 considered three major alternatives for selecting the president: (1) vote by Congress, (2) vote by the state legislatures, and (3) direct popular election. The Committee rejected vote by Congress as a threat to the independence of the executive branch of government. Likewise, vote by the state legislatures posed a problem for the federal government, as it might weaken the national leader at the expense of the states. According to constitutional scholar Martin Diamond, direct election was favored by Madison, Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania.

As a matter of fact, their own first choice was for a straight national popular vote; Wilson introduced that idea, and Madison and Morris endorsed it. But when the “states righters” vehemently rejected it, Wilson, Madison and Morris settled on the device of popularly elected electors.6

The electoral college devised by the Committee solved the problem of choosing a president by employing the congressional formula for state representation already arrived at by the Constitutional Convention, that is, by assigning each state as many electoral votes as it had representatives in Congress. It offered a compromise between vote by the state legislatures and direct popular election by placing the choice of presidential electors in the hands of the state legislatures, which could—but were not required to—base their choice on a popular vote for electors.

A conventional view of the electoral college is that it reflects an anti-democratic bias, or fear of “mob rule,” on the part of the framers. Alexander Hamilton explained the value of the electoral college as follows:

It was ... desirable that the immediate election [of the president] should be made by men [electors] most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation. … It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.7

Diamond suggests another way of looking at the matter based on its historical context:

[T]he Convention feared not democracy itself, but only that a straightforward national election was “impracticable” in a country as large as the United States, given the poor internal communications it then had. Many reasonably feared that, in these circumstances, the people simply could not have the national information about available candidates to make any real choice, let alone an intelligent one. And small-state partisans feared that, given this lack of information, ordinary voters would vote for favorite sons, with the result that large-state candidates would always win the presidential pluralities.8

The founders sought to avoid the problem of favorite sons by requiring electors, in casting two votes for president, to vote for one candidate who was not from their own state. Yet, in settling on the congressional formula for electors, the system gave disproportionate power to two groups of states: the smallest (guaranteed three electoral votes, based on two Senators and one Representative) and the Southern states (based on the 3 5 rule for counting slaves in determining representation in Congress). Observes law professor Akhil Reed Amar:

Virginia emerged as the big winner, with more than a quarter of the electors needed to elect a president. A free state like Pennsylvania got fewer electoral votes even though it had approximately the same free population. The Constitution’s pro-Southern bias quickly became obvious. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.9

The most controversial aspect of the Committee’s plan was to let the Senate decide the presidency in cases where no candidate received a majority of electoral votes. The Convention chose rather to place this power in the House of Representatives, giving one vote to each state in the roll call to elect the president. The Senate received the power to elect the vice president when an electoral majority was lacking. This situation has occurred only once, in the election of 1836, when Virginia’s Democratic electors rejected their own party’s vice presidential candidate because of his common-law marriage to a woman of mixed black-white ancestry. By a vote of 33-16, the Senate upheld the election of Vice President Richard M. Johnson.

 

Disputed Elections in American History

Before the 2000 election, disputed elections for the presidency had taken place four times—in 1800, 1824, 1876, and 1888.10 Two of these four elections, 1876 and 1888, involved a clearcut divergence between the electoral and popular votes. The election of 1824 was more complicated, as leading candidate Andrew Jackson actually won more popular and electoral votes than did his closest rival, John Quincy Adams. The first two elections were settled in the House of Representatives, the third by an Electoral Commission appointed by Congress, and the fourth by lack of challenge from losing candidate Grover Cleveland.

The Election of 1800

The disputed election of 1800 resulted from a lack of foresight on the part of both the founders and the Democratic-Republican party electors that year. Pledged to a ticket of Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr for vice president, these electors gave equal votes (73) to both candidates in the electoral college, providing victory over Federalist candidate John Adams (65), but creating a deadlock between their own nominees. The bitter fight that ensued was not settled until the 36th ballot in the House of Representatives, when Alexander Hamilton persuaded a sufficient number of New England Federalists to put Jefferson over the top. Wide recognition of the Constitution’s deficiency in not calling for separate votes for president and vice president resulted in the ratification of the 12th Amendment in time for the election of 1804.

 

The Election of 1824

The disputed election of 1824 occurred in a race involving four major candidates, all claiming heritage to the party of Thomas Jefferson, and identified as National-Republicans (William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams). The popular vote favored Jackson over the next highest contender, John Quincy Adams, by 41.3% to 30.9%. The electoral vote similarly favored Jackson over Adams, 99-84. But the meaning of the popular vote in this election—the first in which records of it were kept—was somewhat obscure. Only 18 of the 24 states then making up the union held a popular vote (the other six chose their candidates in state legislatures), and there was no nationwide ballot of all the presidential candidates.

The election went into the House of Representatives, where it was decided on the first ballot, after Clay threw his support to Adams (Jackson accused them of a “dea#148; that would make Clay the Secretary of State). The aftermath of the dispute was four years of unrelenting attacks by Jackson on the legitimacy of the Adams administration. When the two faced each other again in the election of 1828, the broad expansion of white male suffrage that constituted a main element of “Jacksonian democracy” gave the former loser a landslide victory over Adams.

 

The Election of 1876

The election of 1876 was cited often in drawing historical comparisons during the post-election period in 2000. It, too, involved fierce partisanship between Republicans and Democrats, then aimed at securing the electoral vote in four states with disputed slates of electors—Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. But the 1876 election should also be seen in terms of a larger political issue: it drove the last nails in the coffin of Reconstruction, as Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes quietly agreed to jettison support for the last Radical Republican regimes remaining in the South.11

In this cliffhanger election, Hayes went to sleep on election night believing he had lost to Democratic candidate Samuel B. Tilden. And he did lose the popular vote, by a margin of 51% to 48%. But, according to Hayes biographer Ari Hoogenboom, Republican political operative Gen. Daniel E. Sickles stayed up to consider the state-by-state election returns, and

in these tallies, Sickles found a glimmer of hope. Hayes could win if the Pacific slope, whose returns were not in, went for him and if Republicans retained control of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana.12

The upshot was that the Republicans pressed for investigation of the election in the three Southern states, charging fraud and intimidation of black voters by Democrats. Writes Hoogenboom:

In Florida, it was impossible to determine who would have won a fair election. Repeaters, stuffed ballot boxes, and Democratic ballots printed with the Republican symbol to trick illiterate voters had all been used.13

But the corruption was not restricted to one side. When Hayes supporter Gen. Lew Wallace (who wrote Ben Hur) went to Florida on his candidate’s behalf, he concluded that “if we win, our methods are subject to impeachment for possible fraud. If the enemy win, it is the same thing exactly.”14

When the states cast their electoral ballots on December 6th (the date then in use), conflicting slates from the four states in contention were sent to Washington. When Congress counted the ballots absent the disputed returns, Tilden had 184 electoral votes (one short of a majority) and Hayes, 165.

To settle the dispute, Congress passed a law creating a 15-member Electoral Commission. It consisted of five members of the House of Representatives (3-2 Democrats, reflecting the House majority), five members of the Senate (3-2 Republicans, reflecting the Senate majority) and five Supreme Court justices (2 Democrats and 2 Republicans, with the fifth expected to be the only political independent on the high court). But Justice David Davis declined the Commission after being appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Democratically-controlled Illinois legislature,15 leaving a Republican justice to fill his place. The Republican majority on the Commission then voted to settle all the disputes in favor of Hayes.

But that was not the final chapter. It had been agreed that the Commission’s decisions must be accepted by both the House and the Senate. House Democrats now threatened to launch a filibuster that would prevent the electoral count from taking place. The outcome, as described in the Congressional Quarterly’s Presidential Elections:

The threat was never carried out because of an agreement reached betwen the Hayes forces and Southern conservatives. The Southerners agreed to let the electoral count continue without obstruction. In return, Hayes agreed that, as president, he would withdraw federal troops from the South, end Reconstruction and make other concessions. The Southerners, for their part, pledged to respect Negro rights, a pledge they did not carry out.16

The deal, later dignified in history texts as the Compromise of 1877, came none too soon. Hayes won the electoral count, 185-184, at 4 in the morning on March 2. He was sworn in at the White House the next day (a Sunday), with his formal inauguration taking place on Monday.

The legacy of the 1876 election was to bequeath Hayes—referred to by opponents as “His Fraudulency” or “Old Eight-to-Seven”—with an uphill battle to establish the legitimacy of his administration. Another outcome was the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which gave each state final authority to determine the legality of its choice of electors, provided the vote was based on laws existing before Election Day, was “regularly given,” and was certified six days before the electoral college vote.17 This act was central to the Florida legislature’s claim of a right to seek “safe harbor” for its electoral vote by choosing its own slate of electors in Election 2000.

 

The Election of 1888

In this election, Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland won a small margin of victory (.8%) over Benjamin Harrison in the popular vote. But this margin was based largely on returns from six Southern states. Harrison (the grandson of a former president) won small popular vote margins in several large states, winning the electoral college comfortably with 233 votes to Cleveland’s 168. As in 1876, allegations of fraud on both sides made the question of who was the legitimate winner of the election murky. In any case, there was no challenge of the electoral college results.

Disputing the Electoral College

A common defense of the electoral college is that it has served to elect the president with few serious mishaps for more than two hundred years. Why tamper with a revered institution and fix what isn’t broken? Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recently contended that, in the four disputed elections in American history, the electoral college was to blame only once:

In both 1824 and 1876, the popular-vote winner was deprived of the presidency. But in neither case was the Electoral College to blame. The House of Representatives denied the presidency to Jackson, and the rigged electoral commission denied the presidency to Tilden. The first time the Electoral College directly denied the presidency to the winner of the popular vote was in 1888.18

But does this explanation beg the question? Had Rutherford Hayes gone to sleep believing the popular vote had given the election to Tilden, he would have had no reason ever to change his mind—in the absence of an electoral college. Similarly, if the popular vote ruled, Albert Gore would unquestionably be the 43rd president of the United States. Contrary to some early predictions that his lead in the popular vote might dwindle, Gore’s margin of victory rose to more than half a million votes by the day the electoral college elected Bush the president.19

The central issue for most opponents of the electoral college is their belief that it is undemocratic. Said League of Women Voters president Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins following the recent election: “The Electoral College, a curious vestige of the 18th century, violates the principle of one-person, one-vote. The time has come to abolish it.”20 Schlesinger, in the same article quoted above, admits that “the electoral college, a last-minute addition to the Constitution, distorts the popular vote. It is impossible to explain to foreigners. Even most Americans don’t understand it.”21 Should this be telling us something? Or not?

A defense of the electoral college as not being undemocratic is offered by Diamond:

We already have one-man, one-vote—but in the states. Elections are as freely and democratically contested as elections can be—but in the states ... Democracy is thus not the question regarding the Electoral College, federalism is: should our presidential elections remain in part federally democratic, or should we make them completely nationally democratic?22

Some believe the electoral college plays a vital role in ensuring that presidential candidates offer a nationwide appeal to the electorate. What candidate, they ask, would pay attention to the states with the smallest populations if not in quest of their electoral votes? But this argument is countered by those who see today’s electorate as divided along other, and more significant, lines than state or regional ones. Writes law professor Julius E. Davis:

Traditionalists defend the electoral college as a bulwark of federalism. In a pluralistic, freely mobile society, geographic boundaries no longer define meaningful political communities. Enshrining the outdated and often toxic notion of states’ rights in the electoral college secures a token of federalism at enormous cost to democracy.23

While the small states generally oppose scrapping the electoral college (which gives them more clout in electing the president than their populations may warrant), political strategists Polsky and Wildavsky argued after the 1968 election that

it is primarily the larger states, through the unit-rule [winner-take-all] principle, who benefit from the Electoral College. A candidate who can get a narrow majority in New York state can get almost as many electoral votes (42) as he could by carrying all of the sixteen smallest states (58). [Note: these numbers are based on 1968] ... The large states are the home of many organized minorities, especially racial and ethnic minorities, and this has traditionally meant that both Presidential candidates have had to pitch their appeals to attract these groups, or at least not drive off significant proportions of them. This is a major reason why U.S. Presidents, Republicans as well as Democrats, have been more activist, welfare-oriented, minority-oriented—in a word, more libera#151;than their congressional party counterparts.24

Maybe. But numbers can yield dffering interpretations. As a New York Times editorial pointed out with regard to the 2000 election:

The most common complaint [about the electoral college] is that the system gives disproportionate weight to smaller states and is therefore inconsistent with the notion of one person one vote … New York, for example, has one electoral vote for every 500,000 people, while South Dakota has one for every 232,000. Looked at another way, Mr. Bush captured 73 electoral votes in 12 small states with a combined population equal to California’s, whereas Mr. Gore received only 54 for winning California itself.25

The small states already have disproportionate representation in Congress. Is there any good reason for them to enjoy the same advantage in electing the president?

It appears that every argument over the electoral college calls forth its opposite. Those who support it as essential to preserving the stability of the two-party system are countered by those who oppose it for the same reason. Again, Schlesinger:

The abolition of state-by-state, winner-take-all electoral votes would speed the disintegration of the already weakened two-party system. It would encourage single-issue ideologues and eccentric millionaires to jump into presidential contests. The multiplication of splinter parties would make it hard for major-party candidates to win popular-vote majorities.26

Third party advocates, on the other hand, believe that third parties play a useful role in our democracy and may ultimately strengthen the two-party system by supporting issues that engage more voters in the political process.27 After all, the Republican Party was born from a small group of slavery opponents who first banded together as the Free Soilers in the election of 1848.28

Electoral college supporters find value in the tendency of the electoral college vote to magnify the winner’s victory and lend it more legitimacy, especially after a close election. But is such legitimacy likely to be attained by a
president who loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college? Consider the following proposition offered by Michael Kinsley in a recent column: “The modern case for the electoral college is that it will lead to an unambiguous result.”29 As the saying goes, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how severely this idea was put to the test in Election 2000.

In fact, the struggle for those last 25 electoral votes in Florida led to a partisan contest of such ferocity that doubt was willfully cast on the integrity of local election board members, Florida’s secretary of state, and its Supreme Court justices. A state legislature invoked its constitutional power to declare its own slate of electors, whether or not they represented the popular vote, for the first time in 124 years. And questions about the validity of hand recounts—a legal and customary method of deciding close elections in most states—were carried to the highest court in the land, causing the direct intervention of the Supreme Court in a presidential election for the first time in U.S. history.

Could choosing the president by direct election be any worse? Might a close election based on the popular vote result in demands for recounts in so many places that a complete recount of the election would become necessary? Or, could nationwide reform of our electoral system provide a cure for the divisive problems that arose over hand recounts in this election?30 Do we want to replace the electoral college with a system that might mean accepting more plurality presidents and/or election runoffs? Or, reform the electoral college by replacing winner-take-all with something that more closely approximates the popular vote in each state? Or, keep the college as is and run the risk of more elections in which the majority vote and the electoral vote are not in accord with each other?

Excepting Jefferson, history has not been kind to those presidents who reigned victorious in disputed elections. John Quincy Adams, cruelly reviled and blocked from implementing his progressive program by the Jacksonians in Congress, left office an unhappy man. Rutherford B. Hayes, credited with significant reform of the civil service, left office a man obsessed with justifying the many other accomplishments of his administration. All three presidents who lost the popular vote served for one term only—Hayes by choice, Adams and Harrison by defeat at the hands of their former opponent in the next election.

What is at issue, finally, is the legitimacy accorded to the candidate who wins the presidency. “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” wrote Jefferson to a friend in 1820. What way of electing the president can best ensure that the will of the people is carried out, and that the person elected to our highest office can not only win, but lead?

 

Notes

1. Martin Diamond, “The Electoral College and the American Idea of Democracy,” in Walter Berns, ed., After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press, 1992), 46. This article constitutes a response to the 1967 recommendation by an American Bar Association study group that the electoral college be abolished as “archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous.”

2. Julian E. Davis, “The Electoral College: What’s the Fix? Take Your Pick,” The Washington Post (11/19/00): Outlook.

3. E. J. Dionne, Jr., “ Scrap This System,” The Washington Post (11/9/00): A29; George F. Will, “No, the System Worked,” The Washington Post (11/9/00): A29; Akhil Reed Amar, “The Electoral College, Unfair From Day One,” The New York Times (11/9/00): A23; Fred Barbash, “What Did You Expect? The Framers Were Politicans, Too; That’s Why We Don’t Know Who Won,” The Washington Post (11/12/00): Outlook, B1, 4-5; “The Electoral College: What’s the Fix? Take Your Pick.”

4. Both these past and current proposals for a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college are similar to the recommendations of the American Bar Association study group in 1967.

5. Barbash, 5.

6. Diamond, 47-48.

7. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, introduced by Clinton Rossiter (New York: Mentor, 1961), No. 68: Hamilton, 412. Jay expresses a similar sentiment with regard to the tempering force of the electoral college: “[The Constitution] confines the electors to men of whom the people have had time to form a judgment, and with respect to whom they will not be liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle,” No. 64: Jay, 391.

8. Diamond, 48.

9. Amar.

10. See the poster, “Presidential Elections By the Numbers,” included with this issue of Social Education.

11. Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), Chapter 17. The Disputed Election, 274-294; for an analysis of how Reconstruction laws bore upon the election, see “Teaching with Documents: Document Related to the Disputed General Election of 1876,” Social Education 64, no. 5 (September 2000), 286-292.

12. Ibid., 274.

13. Ibid., 277.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid, 286. As Hoogenboom explains the matter, “[Davis] was the Greenback candidate for senator from Illinois and had no chance of winning until the Democrats—inspired by Tilden’s nephew Colonel Pelton—threw their support to him. Pelton and his cohorts believed that by electing Davis they had purchased his support, but they had made a monumental miscalculation. Because he was beholden to the Democrats, Davis refused to serve on the commission,” 286.

16. Congressional Quarterly, Presidential Elections, 1789-1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1997): 16.

17. Ibid. According to CQ: “The statute did not define the term ‘regularly given,’ although at the time of its adoption chief concern centered on problems of dual sets of electoral vote returns from a state, votes cast on an improper day, or votes disputed because of uncertainty about whether a state lawfully was in the Union when the vote was cast,” 17-18.

18. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “It’s a Mess, But We’ve Been Through It Before,” Newsweek (11/20/00): 65.

19. An Associated Press (AP) survey of all 50 states’ final election numbers reported on 12/21/00 showed Gore’s margin of victory in the popular vote to be 539,947 votes. Gore won 50,996,116 votes (48.39%) and Bush won 50,456,169 votes (47.88%). See “Gore Wins Popular Vote” at www.nytimes.com/aponline/politics/
AP-BRF-Popular-Vote.html (consulted 12/22/00)

20. Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, Statement of the President of the League of Women Voters, 11/9/00 (www.lwv.org).

21. Schlesinger, 64.

22. Diamond, 51.

23. Davis.

24. Nelson W. Polsby and Aaron B. Wildavsky, Presidential Elections: Strategies of American Electoral Politics, 3rd edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 260-261. The electoral vote counts given here applied to the election of 1968.

25. “The Case for the Electoral College,” The New York Times (12/19/00), Editorial, A30.

26. Schlesinger, 65.

27. One viewpoint on the electoral college by third party advocates is offered by Citizens for True Democracy (claremontmckenna.com/ctd/ec.html).

28. The Free Soil Party ran Martin Van Buren for president in 1848, and John P. Hale for president in 1852; in 1856, the newly-organized Republican Party nominated John C. Fremont and had as its slogan, “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont and Victory.”

29. Michael Kinsley, “Democracy is Approximate,” The Washington Post (11/16/00): A43.

30. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has a Voting System Standards Program aimed at providing voluntary standards for computer-based voting systems (www.fec.gov/pages/vsshst.htm). A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that “overwhelming majorities of Americans support a major overhaul of election rules and procedures including a uniform poll-closing time across the nation, a standard ballot design and consistent rules for conducting recounts.” See “Public Backs Uniform U.S. Voting Rules,” The Washington Post (12/18/00), A1.

 

Teaching Resources

Print

The following references may be useful in studying the electoral college and its effects on presidential elections.

Abbott, David W., and James P. Levine. Wrong Winner. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers , 1991.

Berns, Walter, ed. After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press, 1992.

Best, Judith A. The Choice of the People?: Debating the Electoral College. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay and James Madison, The Federalist Papers. Introduction by Clinton Rossiter. New York: Mentor, 1961.

Hardaway, Robert M. The Electoral College and the Constitution. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995.

Lorant, Stefan. The Presidency: A Pictorial History of Presidential Elections from Washington to Truman. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951.

Peirce, Neal R., and Lawrence D. Longley. The People’s President: The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.

_______. The Electoral College Primer 2000. New Haven: Yale University Press , 1999.

Polsby, Nelson W., and Aaron B. Wildavsky. Presidential Elections: Strategies of American Electoral Politics, 3rd edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

 

Websites

The following websites offer information about and/or viewpoints on the electoral college, including ideas for its maintenance, abolishment, or reform.

Citizens for True Democracy
claremontmckenna.comctd/ec.html
Offers a third party perspective and advocates direct election of the president based on proportional representation in each state

EC: The US Electoral College Web Zine
www.avagara.com/e_c
Offers a defense of the electoral college that purports to debunk myths about disputed elections

Elections Central
www.multied.com/elections
Provides a history of U.S. presidential elections including the electoral and popular vote counts (with percentages) state-by-state; KidsDomain page takes a brief look at disputed elections

Federal Election Commission (FEC)
www.fec.gov
Offers a history of the electoral college and an explanation of how it works that is largely supportive of the two party-system

League of Women Voters
www.lwv.org/where/promoting/electoral_statement.html
Advocates elimination of the electoral college on the basis that it violates the principle of one person-one vote

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
www.nara.gov/fedreg/elctcoll
Offers an electoral college home page with box scores for the presidential elections, FAQs on the electoral college, and other relevant information.

Timeline of Electoral History for Presidential Elections

This timeline uses boldface to indicate disputed elections and italics to indicate provisions of the Constitution and its amendments that relate to presidential elections and citizens’ voting rights. All federal law about presidential elections is contained in Title 3, Chapter 1 of the United States Code, a codification of all the general and permanent laws of the United States, available on the Web at: www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode.


1787 Constitutional Convention appoints “Committee of 11” to determine method for electing the
president

1788 U.S. Constitution ratified; Article II, Section 1 provides for the indirect election of the president and vice president by electors chosen by state legislatures and representing the total number of each state’s representation in Congress

1789 Election of George Washington by unanimous vote of electors

1792 Congress establishes the date for the vote by electors as the first Wednesday in December of election year

1800 Disputed Election: Thomas Jefferson (D-R) is elected on the 36th ballot in the U. S. House of Representatives after he and running-mate Aaron Burr (D-R) receive equal number of votes by electors

1804 12th Amendment: establishes separate votes by electors for president and vice president

1824 First record of popular vote kept in an election that lacked a common ballot for all presidential candidates

1824 Disputed Election: John Quincy Adams (N-R) is elected on the first ballot in the the U. S. House of Representatives after Andrew Jackson (D-R) receives larger wins in popular and electoral votes

1828 Popular vote in the presidential election reflects broad extension of white male suffrage

1836 By this year, winner-take-all system based on the popular vote for party slates of electors adopted in all states except South Carolina (where the state legislature chooses electors until 1860)

1836 Disputed Election: Richard M. Johnson (D) elected vice president in the U. S. Senate after Virginia’s Democratic electors decline to vote for their own party candidate

1845 Congress establishes that all states will choose electors (and, thus, conduct presidential elections) on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November; term “electoral college” becomes official

1865 Congress passes 22nd Joint Rule by which no electoral votes objected to in a joint session of Congress can be counted except by a concurrent majority in both the House and Senate; rule lapses in early 1876

1870 15th Amendment: extends suffrage by eliminating racial barriers in voting

1876 Disputed Election: Rutherford B. Hayes (R) wins electoral vote, 185-184, over popular vote winner Samuel Tilden (D) after Congress establishes an Electoral Commission to resolve disputes over electoral returns from four states

A state legislature (Colorado) chooses presidential electors without holding a popular vote for the last time in U.S. history to-date

1887 Electoral Count Act gives each state final authority to determine the legality of its slate of electors as based on laws existing before election day and certified six days before the electoral college vote; however, Congress can reject electoral votes as not “regularly given” (a term not defined) by a concurrent majority in both House and Senate; date for the electoral college vote changes to the second Monday in January

1888 Disputed Election: Benjamin Harrison (R) wins the electoral vote and Grover Cleveland (D) wins the popular vote in a close election that is uncontested

1920 19th Amendment: extends suffrage by eliminating gender barrier in voting

1933 20th Amendment: establishes January 20 of the year following a general election as the date of presidential succession and provides for what happens if a president-elect dies or fails to qualify for office

1934 Congress changes the date for the electoral college vote to the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, and sets the date for Congress to count the ballots as January 6th

1948 Presidential Succession Act provides for the speaker of the House, followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, to become president should the offices of both president and vice president be vacant

1951 22nd Amendment: establishes that no person can be elected president more than twice, and no person who fills the office for more than two years of an unelected term can be elected more than once

1961 23rd Amendment: extends the right to vote for president to citizens of the District of Columbia

1964 24th Amendment: eliminates the poll tax in any primary or other election for president and vice
president

1965 Voting Rights Act establishes the principle of one-person-one-vote and protects voting rights of racial minority groups; many amendments follow, including the 1970 ban on literacy tests for voting

1969 Maine state legislature replaces winner-take-all with district system in its electoral college vote; 2 of its 4 votes go to the plurality winners in its congressional districts, while the remaining 2 go to the statewide popular vote winner (Nebraska also uses this system)

1969 An amendment to abolish the electoral college is introduced in the 91st Congress (1969-1971). It calls for the direct election of the president, and requires a minimum 40% plurality of the popular vote for the winning candidate or a subsequent runoff between the two top candidates. The amendment passes 338-70 in the House but is blocked in the Senate. Similar amendments fail in the 94th Congress (1975-1977) and the 95th Congress (1977-1979).

1971 26th Amendment: extends the right to vote to citizens aged 18-20

1990 Federal Election Commission (FEC) approves first voluntary national standards for computer-based voting systems

1993 National Voter Registration Act provides for voters to register at state motor vehicle offices, public assistance offices, and offices serving persons with disabilities; and Armed Forces recruitment offices

2000 Disputed Election: George W. Bush (R) loses the popular vote to Albert Gore (D) by 539,947 votes (.5%), but wins in the electoral college (271-266), after the Supreme Court issues a controversial 5-4 ruling that stays the hand recount of disputed ballots in Florida

Reform the Electoral College?

Some critics of the electoral college fall short of calling for its elimination. Many worry about the possible consequences of replacing it with direct popular election of the president. Most doubt that any amendment to abolish the electoral college could gain ratification by three-fourths of the states, since small states can be expected to oppose it. Ideas for reform of the electoral college include the following:

 

Jennifer Truran Rothwell is senior editor of Social Education.