- Historic Sites
The Awkward Interval
Our antiquated elective system gives an outgoing President or congressman egregious opportunity for farewells—and mischief
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
After the Constitution was ratified, a time schedule for the first run-through of these events was set by the old Congress in order to get the system going; before the next presidential election—which was in 1792—Congress enacted a similar schedule that endured for over a hundred years.
The statute of 1792 set the first Wednesday in December as the day for casting the electoral vote in the states, and required the states to choose their electors within thirty-four days prior to that time. The Tuesday after the first Monday in November soon became the most prevalent Election Day in the increasing number of states that chose electors by popular vote. ‘Ehe second Wednesday in February was specified as the day for the congressional tally of the votes cast by the so-called Electoral College.
Looked back upon in a clay when one can jet to the national capital from New Hampshire or Georgia in about an hour, the original interval of a month between Election Day and the electoral vote, and that of two additional months between the electoral vote and its tally by Congress, seem absurdly long. We forget that our political forefathers had to struggle dutifully to their appointments by boat or by horse, and that thirty or forty miles a day was considered excellent progress. The typical American road had not graduated, early in the last century, far beyond an Indian path: in wet weather it was a trough of mud; in dry, a suffocating dust trap. Tree stumps left in the highway, decreed the Ohio legislature in 1804, must be not more than a foot high. When you came to a stream you looked for a ford or a boatman; failing that, you swam your horse across.
“The roads from Philadelphia to Baltimore,” observed the American Annual Register in 1797, “exhibit, for the greater part of the way, an aspect of savage desolation. Chasms to the depth of six, eight, or ten feet occur at numerous intervals. A stage-coach which left Philadelphia on the 5th of February, 1796, took five days to go to Baltimore. … In winter sometimes no stage sets out for two weeks.”
Under such circumstances it was not surprising that when the first Congress officially assembled under the new Constitution in March, 1789, it was over a month before enough senators had arrived in New York (then the capital) to make a quorum and tally the electoral votes of the states. As a result, it was mid-April before Washington was notified that he had been elected President. He made the trip from Mount Vernon to New York in the fast time of one week, and was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.
Quite apart from the formidable difficulties of travel, the American elective system ran into trouble very early. In 1796, it seemed fairly sure by the third week of December that John Adams would be President, but reports of intrigues among the electors contributed to lingering uncertainty, particularly concerning the Vice Presidency. In those days voters did not cast separate ballots for President and Vice President; the candidate with the highest number of electoral votes became President, while the runner-up, even if he represented a different party, became Vice President. There was apparently no complete and accurate count until the official reports from the states were opened and tallied in Congress on the specified second Wednesday in February, 1797. The result in this case showed Adams, a Federalist, with 71 electoral votes and Jefferson, a Democratic Republican, with 69. Under the original constitutional provision the Virginian became Vice President. In 1800 the electoral votes were cast on December 4, and by the twenty-third it was unofficially known in Washington that Jefferson and Aaron Burr had tied for first place. Nevertheless, the official count of the electoral vote could not occur until February 11, while Inauguration Day was legally fixed at March 4.
The long period between the casting of the electoral vote in the states and the official count in Congress thus began to look rather excessive even for those days, particularly in comparison with the short period allowed for Congress to resolve the contest, if necessary, and for the President-elect to make his way to the seat of the government by Inauguration Day. Under the legislative schedule set by the Constitution, Congress was in session from the first Monday in December until March 3, and should have been able to hold the official canvass in mid-January at the latest.
The unanticipated tie of Jefferson and Burr in 1800 provided the first opportunity for Congress to choose a President. The House of Representatives balloted from February 11 until February 17 before finally choosing Jefferson. This experience, added to the result in 1796 when the President’s leading opponent had been elected Vice President, made it clear that something had to be done about the constitutional provision by which the electoral runner-up became Vice President. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, provided for separate electoral voting for the Vice Presidency. The amendment also put March 4 into the Constitution as the permanent Inauguration Day; it did not change the schedule for the electoral process.