Essay, Research Paper
The Electoral College and Proposed Reform Policies
Receiving 300,000 more votes than his best opponent, Candidate A was clearly the favorite among the eight million citizens who placed their vote. Much to his and the rest of the country s surprise, however, he was not elected due to a legal ramification that instead awarded the office to Candidate B. Does this sound like a fable taking place in a non-Democratic, unorganized country? In fact, the above scenario was the United States Presidential election of 1876 between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, Candidate A, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Candidate B. Thanks to a confusing and rarely publicly understood Constitutional system known as the Electoral College, United States citizens can still be supremely governed by leaders not chosen by the majority.
The founding fathers of our nation met in Philadelphia on May 25th, 1787 for the Constitutional Convention. On August 31st a committee of eleven persons was formed to resolve disputes between the large and small states regarding house legislatures and executive voting methods. Two major methods of electing the president were being debated at the Convention, congressional elections and direct voting. It was initially assumed that the best system was congressional elections by congressmen elected by direct popular vote. These individuals would then represent the people by electing the president and vice president themselves. Issues arose that included a possible feeling of obligation from presidents to not veto bills that were being pushed by a backing Senate (Best, 9), unreliable assessments of the citizen s desires by Congress (Longley, R.), and elections that better reflected the opinions and political agendas of the members of Congress than the actual will of the people (Longley, R.).
The opposing executive voting plan was the direct vote system, backed primarily at the Convention by James Madison, James Wilson, and Governor Morris. This was the only true form of voting democracy because it provided for presidents to be elected solely on the popular vote and would most accurately reflect the views on the people. Unfortunately, many representatives were against this method of election. Reasons such as distrust in American voters to intelligently select the best candidate, the fear of a consolidation of too much power and influence in one person (Longley and Braun, 27), and a loss of relative influence from the South due to non-voting slaves were all voiced by many of the delegates (Longley and Pierce, 23).
On September 7th, 1787 the committee adopted the current Electoral College in Article II of the Constitution. It calls for each state receiving the same number of electors as they retain in Congress, providing for a minimum of three per state (at least one from the House of Representatives and one for each of the state s two Senators). Because state population decides House of Representational seats, larger states receive more electors and thus more electoral college votes. Each elector can give one vote towards the 270 of 538 possible votes required to elect the president. All of a state s electoral votes are awarded to the winner of their popular vote, regardless of the margin of victory. In the event that no national majority is reached, it was initially established that the Senate chooses from the top two candidates with a quorum of two-thirds of the Senators and requiring a majority vote (MacBride, 12). The 12th Amendment later redefined this condition to be resolved by a House of Representative vote that is won by a simple majority in which each state receives one vote for the combined majority of their representatives.
Individual states decide how to select their electoral college electors, but the most popular method used by forty eight states is the general ticket system. Under this system the winner from a direct vote election held in each state receives all of that states electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska use the district system; it consents that every district winner receives one vote, and the candidate with the most votes gets the remaining two votes not allocated to a district (Abramson et al). The stakes were too high for the electors to play the role of statesmen. Rather, he/she was a faceless voting component (Longley and Pierce, 22) of the electoral college. Electors pledge to vote for the party and candidate that their state has selected but are not always legally required to vote accordingly. Twenty-four states have laws requiring voters to cast ballots as pledged; those rare electors who still choose to cast faithless electoral college votes have never significantly changed the outcome of an election (Longley, R.).
As stated in the introduction, this is obviously not a system without faults. In extremely close elections and elections where there are prominent candidates from more than the two major parties, the electoral college complicates results in a manner that can lead to non-popular vote winners taking the Presidency. This has happened four times in presidential elections in the United States; elections in 1801, 1825, 1876, and 1888 were all affected. 1801 and 1825 s appointments were decided by the House of Representatives because no majority was reached; 1876 and 1888 s elections selected a President who had lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote.
Albeit, none of these close decisions have been from an overwhelming disproportional swing forced by the bureaucracy of the electoral college. However, it would be possible for a candidate not to receive a single person s vote from 39 states yet still be elected President (Longley, R.). One would only have to win all electoral votes from the top eleven populated states (California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia or Virginia – U.S. Census, 1990) to secure a nomination. Worse, a president could be elected in a typical two-party election with only 22% of the national popular vote or only 15% popular vote in a three-candidate election (Wilkman). While the first scenario is incredibly unlikely and the second situation has not yet happened, probability for the latter is steadily increasing with the emergence of a strong independent third party. As Roger MacBride stated, the electoral college permits splinter parties to play a decisive role in the ultimate allocation of large blocks of electoral votes (32).
Electoral college reform dates back to January 6th, 1797. This first resolution by Republican William L. Smith of South Carolina met the same ultimate rejection that many other proposed plans of reform faced. There are currently four distinct proposals of electoral college reform that have materialized over time. The automatic plan, known for it s voter equity (Best, 67), is the most modest of the four proposals and keeps a majority of the electoral college as it originally was. Receiving Jefferson s support in 1801, it primarily remedies the possibility of a faithless elector and modifies the House of Representatives dependent elections. A negative effect of this plan is that the electoral vote totals would reflect the national popular votes in a distorted fashion (VCCG, 67).
The proportional plan is concerned with the winner-take-all, unit rule aspect of the college. It would allow states to divide their electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote up to the nearest 1/1000th, thus trimming the margin of victory for every election after 1864 to the present (Wilkman). A strong point against this plan is that it allows for less than 40% of the popular vote to elect the president.
The district plan was used by some states during early electoral college history. It proposes a change to the joint session Congress attends in the event of a contingent procedure and divides the states electoral votes to plurality winners. A candidate could still win by one vote in every district under this plan and receive all of the state s electoral votes. Also, it magnifies the disproportionality of giving each state two electoral college votes for their senators by only marginally disenfranchising the districts (Longley and Braun, 53).
The direct vote plan is often called the only true democratic way of holding elections and totally abolishes the electoral college. It reverts the voting process to the same one used for electing state governors, senators, and members of the House. Whoever receives 40% of the popular vote in the first round wins under this reform strategy. Voters rank order the candidates; later, votes from bottom winners are re-allocated until a winner crosses the 50% mark.
Neal R. Pierce said, The cause of electoral college reform seems to be endangered by two age-old threats- the unwillingness of reformers to agree on a single system and the insistence of some that they would reform the system for their own partisan advantage (qtd. in VCCG, 13). Unfortunately, the people may never see even the slightest change if select uncooperative and selfish members of Congress do not modify their standings. Our 200 year-old executive election system of altered democracy was created out of a pressure to reach agreement among the founding fathers. The people are better informed thanks to daily newspapers, televised debates, and internet websites that keep them up to beat with the latest campaign happenings. The electoral college demands reform in these obviously changed voting days.
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