Sunday, September 7, 2008

Electoral College 2: If at first you don't succeed ...

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 set forth the original form of the Electoral College for electing the president and vice president, in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. The basics were:

  • Each state appointed a number of electors equal to the sum of its total representation in the Senate and House of Representatives.

  • No senator, representative or federal officer could be an elector.

  • Electors met in their respective states.

  • Each elector voted for two persons for President.

  • The top vote-getter was elected president, provided that he received a vote from the majority of the electors.

  • The next highest vote-getter was elected vice president.

  • If no presidential candidate won votes from a majority of the electors, or if two candidates were tied, the House of Representatives would elect the president.

  • The House would choose among the top five vote-getters.

  • Each state had one vote in the House's election of the president, and a candidate needed a majority of states in order to win the presidency.

  • The Senate would break a tie regarding the election of the vice president.

In the first two presidential elections under the Constitution, in 1789 and 1792, all of the electors gave one vote to George Washington. Their second votes were split among multiple candidates. Therefore, Washington was elected and reelected president. John Adams received the second-highest number of votes in each of those elections, and was therefore elected and reelected vice president. So far, so good.

I wrote here about the problems with that original formula, once parties started putting up candidates for president and vice president. After the 1800 election deadlock between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Congress and the states realized that they needed to amend the original electoral college structure.

Ratification of the 12th Amendment was completed on June 15, 1804. The change was that each elector casts one vote for president and one vote for vice president, rather than casting two votes for president. If no candidate receives a majority for president, the House elects the president, as described above, except that it chooses among the top three candidates. The Senate performs a similar function in the election of the vice president, choosing from the top two vote-getters.

Since 1804, with rare exceptions, electors nominated by the parties have voted for their parties' candidates for president and vice president. Having the electors cast separate votes for the two offices avoids a repeat of the tie scenario from 1800.

Alexander Hamilton's notion of cool deliberations among elite statesmen as the process for electing the president did not last very long.

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