As I look upon the 2016 election for president and vice president, I realize how little the American public knows about the process of electing our nation’s chief executives.
This is in part due to the failure of our education system to school our citizens in civics (government). If we as a nation want to remain a democratic republic, we need civics education as part of our education curriculum.
To begin, I ask and answer the basic question — exactly what is the Electoral College? As a former student and teacher of political science I have had the pleasure of learning and teaching about the Electoral College. In my possession I have an advanced high school/college textbook written by Dr. Richard J. Hardy, who at the time was a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, Columbia, titled “Government in America,” and it has a copyright date of 1992.
Dr. Hardy is no longer at MU but currently is a professor at his almamater Western Illinois University. In 1992 Dr. Hardy was a Republican candidate for the 9th Congressional District in Missouri. At that time, this position was held by Rep. Harold Volkmer, a 10-term incumbent in the U.S. House. I recently had a long telephone conversation with Dr. Hardy. I became acquainted with him through my mother-in-law, Kay Woomack. I asked Dr. Hardy for permission to use certain parts of his book in this article. He was most agreeable and encouraged me to write about the Electoral College.
In Chapter 14, Section 3, of his book titled “The Constitution Sets Up the Electoral College,” Dr. Hardy discusses and explains the history of the Electoral College.
Dr. Hardy’s words, “The writers of the Constitution originally wanted the president (and the vice president) to be chosen by a group of independent electors. These electors, guided by reason and removed from petty political struggles, would choose wisely among the candidates. But what was intended to be a simple method for selecting the president has now become a very long and complex process involving millions of Americans.
“Perhaps the longest debate at the Constitutional Convention concerned the method of selecting the president giving this power to Congress — one early suggestion — would destroy the idea of separation of powers. Most of the delegates also opposed direct election of the president by the voters at large. After several weeks of arguing, the delegates arrived at a compromise called the Electoral College, allowing indirect popular participation.”
Dr. Hardy continues his explanation of the original Electoral College plan. As we reflect on the process of writing the Constitution and the wisdom of these constitutional writers, I am amazed at their foresight and wisdom. Going back to their original intent would appear to be a solution to some of today’s concerns. But more on that later.
Dr. Hardy continues, “The original plan for the Electoral College system is found in Article II of the U.S. Constitution (some modifications in the original plan later proved necessary). Each state is to choose a group, or slate, of electors as directed by the state Legislature. The number of electors to which each state is entitled equals the total number of senators and representatives it has in Congress. (This formula is still in use.)
No elector may be a member of Congress or hold any other federal office.
Under the original plan, the electors would meet in their own states, and each one would vote for two candidates. The results were sealed and sent to the nation’s capital, where they were to be opened and tallied by the president of the Senate (the vice president) before a joint session of Congress (each elector fills out multiple copies and sends those copies to other state and national officials to ensure that the ballots have a way of being checked and re-checked to prevent tampering — my addition to Dr. Hardy’s text). The candidate receiving the most electoral votes, provided it was a majority, would become the president; the runner-up would become the vice president. If there were a tie, or no candidate received a majority, the House was to choose the president. Each state would only be able to cast one vote; the winner needed a majority.”
Yes, you heard correctly, each state received only one vote. This would be no problem for Wyoming since it has only one representative, but one can see the difficulty in states with multiple representatives represented by multiple political parties — my comments.
“In the beginning the Electoral College plan appeared to work quite well: George Washington won the first two elections by unanimous votes. He has been the only president so elected. What the original plan did not anticipate was the rise of political parties. This created a difficult situation in 1797 when the president and vice president were of different parties — John Adams, a Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican.
In 1800 a tie occurred in the Electoral College, because each elector cast his two votes for his party’s two candidates, without specifying which one was to be president and which vice president. The two Democratic-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, each got 73 votes. The two Federalists, John Adams and Charles C. Pinckney, received 65 and 64 votes, respectively. Because of the deadlock, the election was thrown into the House.
The Democratic-Republicans clearly intended Jefferson, the party leader, to be president, but the Federalist-dominated House at first backed Burr. Even though Jefferson and Hamilton had long been rivals, Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist legislative leader, was even more dismayed at the thought of Burr as president. After 35 ballots, Hamilton was able to persuade enough Federalist members to elect Jefferson president and Burr vice president. The 1800 election led to passage of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 12th Amendment altered the original Electoral College system to require electors to cast separate ballots for president and vice president. The Jefferson-Burr problem could not occur again.
Every four years, presidential elections are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But to be exact, this is actually the day for choosing electors. Many Americans are not aware of this step; in three-fourths of the states the electors’ names do not even appear on the ballot. In those states, a vote for a presidential candidate is assumed to be a vote for the corresponding electors.
The Constitution does not specify how electors are to be nominated, but since 1800, political parties have chosen them. As a result presidential electors are not truly independent, as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention intended, but closely tied to a political party.
Once the voters have cast their ballots, it is up to each state to determine how the electoral vote is to be distributed. Today every state but Maine awards its electors on an at-large, “winner-take-all” basis. The presidential candidate who receives a plurality of the state’s popular vote wins the entire slate of electors. That is, to win a state, a candidate needs more votes than any other candidate (a plurality), but not necessarily a majority.
Technically these popular votes do not count — and the president is not elected — until the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December. This is the date set by Congress for the electors to meet in their respective, state capitals, sign their ballots and send them to Washington, D.C., for counting by the president of the U.S. Senate. A candidate must have a majority of the electoral votes to become president. Today there are 538 electoral votes based on 435 representatives in the U.S. House and 100 senators in the U.S. Senate and three votes for the District of Columbia and so 270 votes are needed to become president. Otherwise, the election is decided in the House of Representatives.
In the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, the person elected president did not receive a majority of the popular vote but won the presidency with a majority of electoral votes. William Jefferson Clinton won the election of 1992 with only about 42 percent of the popular vote, but won a majority of the electoral vote (more than 270) and the U.S. presidency.
The original intent of the Electoral College was to allow fair and independent electors to actually decide on candidates. Time and party politics have changed the system. Nevertheless, electors are not legally bound to cast their votes for the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. Although most electors are “pledged” to vote for their state’s preference, there have been occasions when so-called “faithless” electors have broken this pledge. Electors have also occasionally violated their winner-take-all rule. In 1960, for example, 15 electors from Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma voted for Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia for president instead of either John Kennedy or Richard Nixon. If 9,000 votes in Missouri and Illinois had switched from Kennedy to Nixon, the election of 1960 would have been determined by the House. If 12,000 votes for Truman in Ohio and California had changed the election of 1948 would also have been decided by the House.
This year the two leading candidates — Clinton and Trump — have such high negative appeal with many members of their own political parties the question is “Will some electors vote for someone other than the party’s choice for president?” In a close contest in the Electoral College vote, it would not take many electors to throw the election to the House.
In closing, let me answer this question, “Why do we not eliminate the Electoral College and replace it with direct election by popular vote?” The answer is very simple — most states — those with small populations — would lose political power. One example: Wyoming, a state with about 500,000 people, has three electoral votes. With only .21 percent of the total U.S. population, it has .55 percent of the Electoral College vote. This example would be repeated in over three-fourths of the states to some degree. Since it takes three-fourths of the states to ratify a Constitutional Amendment to change the Electoral College system, most states will not give up political power to the more populous states. There have been suggestions for changing the Electoral College, but to date they have not gained any measurable support.