The Electoral College
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Excerpt from an original publication: Kimberling, William C. (1992). Essays in Elections The Electoral College. Washington: National Clearinghouse on Election Administration, Federal Election Commission.

by William C. Kimberling, Deputy Director FEC National Clearinghouse on Election Administration

Historical Curiosities

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.

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.

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:

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.

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