With the growing clamor by some of the political spectrum to favor abolishing the Electoral College as “undemocratic,” it is again important to counter them and their thinking. They, and even proponents of the successful age-old system, can benefit by occasional reviews of how and why it came into being.
In a recent Gazette guest column, Iowa Sec. of State Paul Pate addressed the subject, and in his defense of our electoral system, he focused on its favorable impact on Iowa. Pate expertly explains how a system for choosing the president, based solely on a national popular vote, would be injurious to Iowa and smaller states. He tells how California, New York and Illinois with their large metropolitan centers could together dominate the presidential election process. Parties and candidates could overlook and render irrelevant what would become “flyover” states. As Pate puts it, rural America would be without a defensive voice. Perhaps as a sequel to Pate’s account of the Electoral College, Iowa connection, a further probe into the overall subject would be meaningful and helpful.
After gaining independence, an initial government framework was set up under the so-called “Articles of Confederation.” It soon proved to be weak and even embarrassing. It was largely impotent in the matter of taxes and commerce where states assumed superior power. Its failure led to a second attempt at government with the calling of a convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to address the problems. From the wisdom and efforts of these Founding Fathers came a Constitution with three branches of government.
A major challenge confronting the framers was the process of electing the president. The idea of popular election was quickly dismissed. Instead, the Electoral College was to choose a president. The term itself is not in the document and its meaning was not of a “school,” but as a group engaged in a common pursuit.
The Electoral College was set up as follows
1. Chosen “electors” would cast ballots for each state.
2. They were “free agents” making their own selections.
3. The method of choosing electors was left up to each state.
4. States received a number of electoral votes equal to their total senators and representatives.
5. Each elector voted for two with one candidate receiving a majority to be president and the next highest vote to be vice president.
6. If no one received a majority vote, which the framers believed was likely to occur, the outcome was given to the House of Representatives where each state had one vote.
The big-little states controversy had been resolved as to the new legislative branch with the creation of a two-house Congress. The House of Representatives was apportioned among several states according to population, offset by an upper house, the Senate, in which the states would be equally represented with two members each. So, as with the makeup of the Electoral College, the power of the big states was partially diluted, and the smaller states protected.
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The first presidential election in the new system was not held until 1789. There was little campaigning and George Washington was the unanimous choice by the 69 electors. John Adams with 34 votes became vice president. Alexander Hamilton keenly prevented a tie by steering some votes away from Adams who was their second choice, and since there were identical ballots. The framers of the Electoral College, fearing what Hamilton called the “mob,” gave the voting to special electors who were presumably more capable and informed.
But with the coming of political parties by 1796, the Federalists and Democratic Republicans, “popular sovereignty” was to be introduced into the process. The electors then became merely robots who voted as the parties instructed them. Another change in the electoral system came after the Thomas Jefferson-Aaron Burr deadlock in 1800. A distinction in ballots then could have declared a winner without going to the House of Representatives.
The “winner-take-all” of the state’s electoral vote remains an issue since it is possible for the candidates receiving the most popular vote to lose elections. That occurred in 1888 when Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison.
For over two centuries, the Electoral College has survived and adjusted to its challenges. It has, for the most part, functioned smoothly and unnoticed. Its retention is important to all, including Iowa.
• Bob Ask of Cedar Rapids is a former American history and government teacher at Jefferson High School.