Why presidential elections are such a puzzle

As Americans prepare for the holidays, they are greeted daily by political news regarding the 2012 presidential election.  Many are justifiably dismayed about the length of our presidential campaigns.  It’s worth considering the astonishing contrast between 21st-century presidential elections and those contemplated by the 18th-century authors of the Constitution.

Constitutional Convention (via Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone at the 1787 Federal Convention knew that Virginia delegate George Washington – who presided over the assembly – would be the first executive.  The challenge would be in determining how to elect Washington’s successors. As Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin said: “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”  

Accordingly, the Electoral College was originally designed to be many genuinely deliberative entities, within each state.  “Electors” would be chosen by the state legislatures.  Each elector would cast two ballots for president – but they could not vote for two candidates from their own state.

These conclaves– made up of the political elite – would assemble in December, in their respective state capitals, instead of the national capital.  Since all electors never convened in one place, it would be much more difficult to form alliances and parties. In 18th-century America, travel and communications were slow, arduous, and expensive, especially in winter.   

All of these provisions reduced the chances of any post-Washington candidate receiving an outright majority in the Electoral College. If nobody could do so, the House would choose among the top five vote-getters, by majority vote.  But the House would vote by state – and each state would have only one vote!   (After the House’s selection, the vice presidency would simply go to the remaining candidate with the highest number of electoral votes.)

Both large and small states wanted presidential elections to favor their interests.  Large states were given more electoral votes, based on the size of their House delegations.  But each state received two extra electoral votes, for its Senators, regardless of size – thus giving small states more weight in the Electoral College.  If elections did go to the House, the provision that each state would only have one vote favored small states as well.

It was the result – like everything in politics, then and now – of compromises.  It had been forged after heated arguments, between well-principled individuals.  This system – even at the time – was convoluted, confusing, and unpredictable.

Franklin’s prediction about Washington, shared by his colleagues, was accurate.  Washington was unanimously elected by the Electoral College in both 1788 and 1792.  But the painstaking compromise, on the issue of presidential elections in the House, has been needed only twice – in 1800 and 1824.

So, in light of history, perhaps we shouldn’t feel so bad about our byzantine political system for presidential elections.  Special interests, money, name recognition, pundits, scandals, gaffes, and sound bites dominate discourse.  And due to the primary and caucus system, it now takes almost two years to determine the victor.  However, the problems and dilemmas of selecting presidents have remained the same, through the centuries.  It was just as challenging for the 18th-century authors of the Constitution, as it is for us.

Craig Dimitri’s political journalism has appeared numerous times in the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as on Metropolis and other web sites.

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Comments

  1. says

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only the current handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree already, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored –including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. That’s more than 85 million voters ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    Because of the state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws in 48 states, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation’s 56 (1 in 14 = 7%) presidential elections. The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore’s lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

  2. says

    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists who vote as rubberstamps for presidential candidates. In the current presidential election system, 48 states award all of their electors to the winners of their state.

    The Founding Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens.

    The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, were eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

    Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors…” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected. Indeed, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors using two of the rejected methods in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet). Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century.

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

    The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state’s electoral votes.

    As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years.

  3. says

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that will just be ‘spectators’ and ignored.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes — 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    NationalPopularVote

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