The wisdom of the Electoral College

by Paul Mero

Prior to this year’s presidential election, four times in our history has a candidate become president without winning the popular vote. In 1824, John Quincy Adams lost both the popular vote and the electoral vote to Andrew Jackson. But Jackson fell short of the electoral votes needed that year to claim the presidency. That election fell to the House of Representatives to decide and it chose Adams. I’ll come back to this example in a minute.

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the electoral vote, by one vote, but lost the popular vote by a quarter million votes to Samuel J. Tilden. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the electoral vote over Grover Cleveland to claim the presidency but lost the popular vote. And, in 2000, you might recall that George W. Bush became president while losing the popular vote to Al Gore. Of course, now we have the 2016 election as well. As of this date, Hillary Clinton is almost three million popular votes ahead of Donald Trump who won the electoral vote to become president.

Article II of the United States Constitution establishes the Electoral College and the Twelfth Amendment lays out its ground rules. It exists for two primary reasons. First, it exists to spread the balance of power across the states, much like the same reason United States Senators are equally representative among the states. Were it not for the Electoral College, states with the largest populations would determine every presidential election. In 2016, out of 3,141 counties nationwide, Hillary Clinton only won 487 counties – yet won the popular vote by nearly three million votes. The Electoral College assures all voters that California, New York, and Illinois won’t determine every national election.

Second, and perhaps the real reason we have the Electoral College today, our founding fathers wanted a way to assure that not just anyone could become president. They foresaw the possibility that a corrupt, contemptible candidate – or even a candidate controlled by a foreign power – could gain the popular vote. The founding fathers, in their wisdom, built a check into our presidential election process.

Alexander Hamilton was the author of the Electoral College idea. In The Federalist Papers, #68, Hamilton makes his case. He wrote,

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson was considered by many in the Establishment of its day to be unfit for public office, let alone the presidency. He was considered a “backwoodsman” and a “cracker” of the worst sort. In other words, many of his opponents in the eastern states saw him as “white trash” and, frankly, he didn’t disappointment them. Jackson was a character, to say the least. In many ways, Andrew Jackson was the Donald Trump of his day upsetting all sorts of political customs and conventions. He was a hillbilly, a man of short temper and long memory, a well-known adulterer eventually marrying a pipe-smoking, hillbilly, bigamist wife.

That said, the people loved him. He spoke candidly. He hated Native Americans and anyone not matching the color of his skin. Trump might jokingly boast that he is so popular he could kill somebody and still get elected, but Andrew Jackson actually did kill people. And, as you might imagine from Jackson’s opposition in his day, the big business and big bank establishments were his mortal enemies. He did not lose the 1828 and 1832 elections. In fact, he won them in landslides. And his legacy continued another four years when his vice-president, Martin Van Buren, handily won the 1836 election. Our equivalent today would be eight years of Donald Trump followed by four more years of Mike Pence.

But it’s the 1824 presidential election that draws our attention. After winning the popular and electoral votes, though not enough electoral votes to seal the deal, the election was cast into the hands of the House of Representatives – where Jackson was unpopular. House Speaker Henry Clay ran against Jackson for president but did not make the cut for the top three candidates. And now, there sat Clay, leader of the body deciding the fate of the presidency, successfully lobbying his colleagues to vote for John Quincy Adams.

Though Donald Trump clearly won the needed electoral vote, he does face electors in 21 states who are not bound in casting their votes. Thirty-eight Republican votes cast for Hillary Clinton would change the outcome. Unlikely as that is, there is a movement, ironically led by liberals, to get Hillary’s Democratic electors to cast their votes for Mitt Romney and, by doing so, would make it easier to get 38 Republican electors to vote for Romney – the next president of the United States.

Alas, as fun as that would be, Donald Trump will get the votes of the Electoral College on December 19. That’s how the Electoral College is supposed to work – voter’s last defense against seating an unfit presidential candidate.

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