Undemocratic by Design

Creative Commons photo by Tom Nappi of the 2012 Electoral College.

Creative Commons photo by Tom Nappi of the 2012 Electoral College

With the Electoral College vote on the horizon, it might be helpful to look at a history of the institution.

In 1824, America hosted an election for the 6th President of the United States. Of the four candidates running (Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford & Henry Clay), not one was able to secure a majority of electoral votes. So, the decision fell to the House of Representatives who then elected John Quincy Adams to the presidency. This election was a first in two ways: 1) Quincy Adams was the first son of a President (2nd President, John Adams) to be elected to that office; and, 2) Quincy Adams was the first President-elect to have not received the popular vote.

Andrew Jackson (elected 7th President in 1829) won the popular vote 153,544 to Adams’ 108,740 – a difference of about 45 thousand votes – and received 99 electoral votes to Adams’ 84. The decision of the House was highly influenced by Kentucky congressman, and former presidential candidate, Henry Clay, who cast his support for Adams over Jackson. President Adams then appointed Clay to the seat of Secretary of State. Andrew Jackson and his proponents referred to the correlation of Clay’s support and later appointment as a “corrupt bargain.” Then, in 1828, Jackson won both the popular and electoral vote which ended the John Quincy Adams presidency.

52 years later, Rutherford B. Hayes would become the 19th President of the Union by one electoral vote – 185 to 184. And just as in the election of 1824, President-elect Hayes did not win the popular vote, which resulted in Samuel J. Tilden picking up 4,300,590 votes; and Hayes: 4,036,298. This became the most disputed election in American history. It was followed by month of deliberation and litigation. Following suit with Adams v. Jackson, the Hayes election was stained by a specter of corruption. In January of 1877, Congress appointed an Electoral Commission to determine the result of the election. The commission consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats and favored Hayes in all contests eight to seven. Some have argued that the decision was too politicized with the “Compromise of 1877” which pulled federal troops out of the southern states to end “Reconstruction.” This deal was struck by Republicans for the acquiescence of the Democrats.

Again in 1888, only three election cycles later, Benjamin Harrison (grandson to 9th President William Henry Harrison, who died only 32 days after taking the oath of office) lost the popular vote to the incumbent Grover Cleveland – 5,540,309 to 5,439,853 – but won the Electoral College 233 to 168. The 23rd President was not known for running a very strong campaign – though neither did President Cleveland (the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms) – but he was one of the first to conduct a “front-porch” campaign of short speeches to delegates from his home.

Then, 112 years later, during the year 2000 race for the White House, Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote with a 540 thousand lead. But George W. Bush, after months of litigation and appeals won the 43rd presidency by 5 electoral votes. This became the 4th time an American President would win that office without having won the popular vote and the second time in American history that the son of a President (41st President, George H. W. Bush) was elected.

Now, in 2016, 192 years since John Quincy Adams made history, America has elected to the seat of the presidency a man who did not receive the popular vote. After a grueling and contentious election cycle, President-elect Donald Trump has won the Electoral College 306 to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (wife to 42nd President, Bill Clinton) 232 electoral votes. Clinton maintains a popular lead that now surpasses 2 million votes, which has sparked a hailstorm of demands to do away with the Electoral College.

Retiring California Senator, Barbra Boxer, said “The Electoral College is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society, and it needs to change immediately. Every American should be guaranteed that their vote counts.” And back in 2013, polls showed that 63% of Americans wanted to do away with the Electoral College.

So why keep it? And why do we have it in the first place? Is it as “outdated” and “undemocratic” as Senator Boxer claims it is?

For starters, the Electoral College is undemocratic… by design. Article V Section 4 of the United States Constitution says, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government…” That is to say, these several sovereign states will retain domestic autonomy under a uniting Constitution. The Founding Fathers did not intend for America to be a pure democracy, because, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.”

The Electoral College gives power to the states respectively. As a federalist society, folks out in Oklahoma cannot make laws for people in Washington, and visa-versa. It prevents the larger states (California, Texas, Florida, etc.) from deciding the whole of the election, completely disregarding the less populated states.

The Electoral College – found in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 to the Constitution – first came about when deciding how to elect the executive of the Union. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton said that “the people 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 idea was that appointing “electors” would do well to safeguard against the dangers of multiple factions and prevent an unfit candidate from be elected. “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

The question then rises, as it certainly has in several progressive circles, is Trump fit or even qualified for the highest office in the land? At this time, we simply cannot know. After his first 100 days in office, and probably sooner, the American people will get a better idea of his aptitude as the executive.

Should we keep it? That is up to the people and legislation to decide – though Electoral College reform seems to be more of a winning argument. And, lest we forget, of the 56 presidential elections America has had, only 5 times has the President-elect not received the popular vote. But is it outdated? Suffice to say that, based upon the philosophy and resolve of the Founding Fathers, as long men are not angels, and as long as democracy is simply “mob-rule,” the Electoral College will not be outdated.

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