Electoral College Follies

The Constitution of the United States went into effect March 4, 1789. The Electoral College, as prescribed in Article II, Section 1, elected George Washington president that same year, with 69 votes. Washington was re-elected with 132 votes in 1792. John Adams received the second-most votes, thus winning the vice-presidency, both times.

Presidential elections worked smoothly all the way up to the vote in 1800. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 votes, sending the election to the House of Representatives. (Jefferson thought he was running against John Adams; Burr was Jefferson’s intended vice-president.) The Constitution had not foreseen the possibility of a tie. After thirty-six votes, the House named Jefferson president and Burr vice-president.

Amendment XII to the Constitution’s was ratified before the next election. It cleaned up the word salad of Article II, Section 1, directing electors to vote separately for president and vice-president.

This worked fine… until 1824. Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and a virulent racist, won the popular vote over his three opponents. He also garnered the most electoral votes but did not receive a majority. So back to the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Henry Clay, who finished fourth in the electoral vote, burned with a hatred of Jackson. Clay bargained with Ohio and New England states that had voted for Jackson to cast their House ballots for John Quincy Adams, awarding the presidency to the second-place finisher. Adams was the first to become president without winning the popular vote. He appointed Clay Secretary of State.

Old Hickory cast himself as champion of the common man and won election to the presidency in 1828. In his first annual address to Congress, Jackson called for elimination of the Electoral College.

The next Electoral debacle came in 1876. A decade into post-Civil War Reconstruction, Republican New York governor Samuel Tilden garnered 260,000 more votes than Democratic Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden, though, was one electoral vote short of a majority. Results from three southern states (Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina) were disputed; both sides claimed victory and declared their electors were the valid ones. Once again the election would be decided by the House of Representatives.

In exchange for the southern votes, Hayes agreed to back away from federal control of the secessionists states. After taking office, President Hayes effectively ended Reconstruction, removed federal troops and opened the way for Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of the black population.

After twenty years of political party wrangling, Congress enacted the Electoral Count Act of 1887, codifying procedures and deadlines for the states to follow in resolving elector disputes, certifying results, and sending the results to Congress.

The South did remain solidly Democratic until Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Richard Nixon parlayed this into his “Southern Strategy,” attracting southern white racists into the Republican party, where they remain today.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: