Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Examining the Electoral College, Part 3: History Lesson II

Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution is where the original concept of “electors” is spelled out:
Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.
The section goes on to describe how the voting of electors will be conducted, with the results conveyed to Congress.

As noted in History Lesson I, though, the system resulted in problems early on, and as a result Amendment XII to the Constitution was adopted. The language quoted above stayed the same, allowing each state to appoint their electors in the manner they see fit, but the method of counting electoral votes was altered, basically separating the voting for president and vice president. The amendment didn’t solve the other problems that were already apparent, however.

Robert Bennett’s book, Taming the Electoral College, recounts the election of 1824, in which the backup procedure established in the Amendment came into play, in large part because there was no obvious successor to Monroe. At that time, most states had chosen popular election as the “manner” for appointing electors, but a few states used other methods. Andrew Jackson had a plurality of popular votes in states using that method, and also had a plurality of electoral votes, but because none of the candidates had a majority of electoral votes the choice went to the House of Representatives, which chose John Quincy Adams. There were also substantial electoral vote problems in the election of 1876 because of rival slates of claimants to the office of elector and disputes over elector qualification. The result of these problems was the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which is basically what governs the counting of electoral votes today, although it doesn’t entirely resolve the problem of competing slates of electors, which was an issue in the 1960 election. Still, though, Bennett points out that “the ECA has played a steadying role in electoral college controversies.”

What’s most interesting to me, though, is the changing “manner” of state selection of electors, since the Constitution leaves that up to individual state legislatures. Since the 1830s, with a few minor exceptions, states have used popular election of electors. But the rules of those elections raises some questions. Originally, as Bennett tells us, electors were intended to be chosen as individuals (who would then meet to deliberate on the best choice for President and Vice-President). But it didn’t take long for slates of electors to become associated with political parties and their candidates. States use a variety of methods of reflecting this association, but usually the identity of the elector isn’t even known to the voters. Also, and this is critical to the real issue I’m exploring, there is the question of whether the slate of electors should be chosen on a proportional basis, or on a “general ticket” state-wide (a.k.a., “winner-take-all”), or on election by district within the state. Where one party dominates the state, the winner-take-all method clearly is in their favor. (Thomas Jefferson himself said he preferred the district election method, but benefited from the winner-take-all method that helped him win election.) Currently, all states but two (Maine and Nebraska) use the winner-take-all method. Those two determine electors district by district. Under the dominant method, then, the size of the popular vote margin in a given state is irrelevant because the winner takes all of the electoral votes.

Bennett observes that the general ticket has led to the close integration of parties into the process. And here’s the real point of this discussion of history:
“The net result of these various developments is to give us a presidential selection system that is quite different from the one envisaged by those who came up with the electoral college in the first place. Instead of being marginalized in the process as the framers had hoped and expected, political parties dominate it. The prevalence of winner-take-all has to some degree deprived the less populous states of the electoral college advantage that was built into the system for them.”
In short, the system we’ve got isn’t the one the founders had in mind. So why not explore making improvements?

Next: Exploring an alternative.

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