Excerpt from an original document located at Jackson County, MO Election Board
In the evolution of the Electoral College, there have been some interesting developments and remarkable outcomes. Critics often try to use these as examples of what can go wrong. Yet most of these historical curiosities were the result of profound political divisions within the country which the designers of the Electoral College system seem to have anticipated as needing resolution at a higher level.
- In 1800, as previously noted, the Democratic-Republican Electors gave both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr and equal number of electoral votes. The tie, settled in Jefferson's favor by the House of Representatives in accordance with the original design of the Electoral College system, prompted the 12th Amendment which effectively prevented this sort of thing from ever happening again.
- In 1824, there were four fairly strong contenders in the presidential contest (Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay) each of whom represented an important faction within the now vastly dominant Democratic-Republican Party. The electoral votes were so divided amongst them that no one received the necessary majority to become president (although the popular John C. Calhoun did receive enough electoral votes to become vice president). In accordance with the provisions of the 12th Amendment, the choice of president devolved upon the House of Representatives who narrowly selected John Quincy Adams despite the fact that Andrew Jackson had obtained the greater number of electoral votes. This election is often cited as the first one in which the candidate who obtained the greatest popular vote (Jackson) failed to be elected president. The claim is a weak one, though, since six of the twenty four States at the time still chose their Electors in the State legislature. Some of these (such as sizable New York) would likely have returned large majorities for Adams had they conducted a popular election.
- In 1836, presidential election was a truly strange event. The developing Whig Party, for example, decided to run three different presidential candidates (William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Hugh White) in separate parts of the country. The idea was that their respective regional popularities would ensure a Whig majority in the Electoral College which would then decide on a single Whig presidential ticket. This fairly inspired scheme failed, though, when Democratic-Republican candidate martin Van Buren won an absolute majority of Electors. Nor has such a strategy ever again been seriously attempted. Yet Van Buren himself did not escape the event entirely unscathed. For while he obtained an electoral majority, his vice presidential running mate (one Richard Johnson) was considered so objectionable by some of the Democratic-Republican Electors that he failed to obtain the necessary majority of electoral votes to become vice president. In accordance with the 12th Amendment, the decision devolved upon the Senate which chose Johnson as vice president anyway. A really bizarre election, that one.
- In the 1872 election, Democratic candidate Horace Greeley (he of earlier "Go West, young man, go West" journalistic fame whose nomination makes a good story in itself) thoughtlessly died during that period between the popular vote for Electors and the meeting of the Electoral College. The Electors who were pledged to him, clearly unprepared for such an eventuality, split their electoral votes amongst several other Democratic candidates (including three votes for Greeley himself as a possible comment on the incumbent Ulysses S. Grant). That hardly mattered, though, since the Republican Grant had readily won an absolute majority of Electors. Still, it was an interesting event for which the political parties are now prepared.
- In 1876, the county once again found itself in serious political turmoil echoing, in some respects, both the economic divisions of 1824 and the impending political party realignments of 1836, but with the added bitterness of Reconstruction. A number of deep cross currents were in play. After a vast economic expansion, the county had fallen into a deep depression. Monetary and tariff issues were eroding the Union Republican coalition of East and West while a solid Republican black vote eroded the traditional Democratic hold on the South. The incumbent Republican administration of Grant had suffered a seemingly endless series of scandals involving graft and corruption on a scale hitherto unknown. And the South was eager to put an end to Radical Reconstruction which was, after all, a kind of vast political mugging. Against this backdrop, the resurging Democratic Party easily nominated Samuel J. Tilden, the popular Governor of New York, and Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana (shrewd geographic choices under the circumstances). The Republicans, in a more turbulent convention, selected Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and William A. Wheeler of New York. A variety of fairly significant third parties also cropped up, further shattering the country's political cohesion.
This is about as good a prescription for electoral chaos as anyone might hope for. Indeed, it is almost surprising that things did not turn out worse than they did. For on election night, it looked as though Tilden had pulled off the first Democratic presidential victory since the Civil War - although the decisive electoral votes of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana remained in balance. Yet these States were as divided internally as was the nation at large. Without detailing the machinations of the vote count, suffice it to say that each State finally delivered to the Congress two sets of electoral votes - one set for Tilden and one set for Hayes. Because the Congressional procedures for resolving disputed sets of Electors had expired, the Congress established a special 15 member commission to decide the issue in each of the three States. Thus, Hayes was elected president despite the fact that Tilden, by everyone's count, had obtained a slight majority of popular votes (although the difference was a mere 3% of the total vote cast). As a final note, the Congress enacted in 1887 legislation that delegated to each State the final authority to determine the legality of its choice of Electors and required a concurrent majority of both houses of Congress to reject any electoral vote. That legislation remains in effect to this day so that the events of 1876 will not repeat themselves.
- Benjamin Harrison's election in 1888 is really the only clear-cut instance in which the Electoral College vote went contrary to the popular vote (until the 2000 election). This happened because the incumbent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, ran up huge popular majorities in several of the 18 States which supported him while the Republican challenger, Benjamin Harrison, won only slender majorities in some of the larger of the 20 States which supported him (most notably in Cleveland's home State of New York). Even so, the difference between them was only 110,476 votes out of 11,381,032 cast - less than 1% of the total. Interestingly, in this case, there were few critical issues (other than tariffs) separating the candidates so that the election seems to have been fought - and won - more on the basis of superior party organization in getting out the vote than on the issues of the day.
These, then, are the major historical curiosities of the Electoral College system. And because they are so frequently cited as flaws in the system, a few observations on them seem in order.
First, all of these events occurred over a century ago. For the past hundred years, the Electoral College has functioned without incident in every presidential election through two world wars, a major economic depression, and several periods of acute civil unrest. Only twice in this century (the States' Rights Democrats in 1948 and George Wallace's American Independents in 1968) have there been attempts to block an Electoral College victory and thus either force a negotiation for the presidency or else force the decision into the Congress. Neither attempt came close to succeeding. Such stability, rare in human history, should not be lightly dismissed.
Second, each of these events (except 1888) resulted either from political inexperience (as in 1800, 1836, and 1872) or from profound political divisions within the century (as in 1824, 1876, and even 1948 and 1968) which required some sort of higher order political resolution. And all of them were resolved in a peaceable and orderly fashion without any public uprising and without endangering the legitimacy of the sitting president. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a direct election of the president could have resolved events as agreeably.
Finally, as the election of 1888 demonstrates, the Electoral College system imposes two requirements on candidates for the presidency:
- that the victor obtain a sufficient popular
vote to enable him to govern (although this may not be the absolute majority), and
- that such a popular vote be sufficiently distributed
across the county to enable him to govern.
Such an arrangement ensures a regional balance of support which is a vital consideration in governing a large and diverse nation (even though in close elections, as in 1888, distribution of support may take precedence over majority of support).
Far from being flaws, then, the historical oddities described above demonstrate the strength and resilience of the Electoral College system in being able to select a president in even the most troubled of times.
For more on the Electoral College