The Electoral College: Does It Choose The Best Man?

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No matter what the record books seem to say, John F. Kennedy was not elected President of the United States on November 8, 1960, by 34,221,485 votes over Richard M. Nixon’s 34,108,684. On that Election Day, 1960, John F. Kennedy merely won a popularity contest.

He was elected President on December 19, 1960, by 303 votes over Nixon’s 219.

He could have won the November popularity contest and still have lost the December election to his opponent. That has happened—to Grover Cleveland in 1888, for example.

He could have won the November popularity contest, missed election in December by getting fewer than the 269 votes he needed (albeit more than his nearest rival), and lost the Presidency in January Io Nixon. That, too, has happened, a couple of limes. (In 1876 Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won the November election by 264,292 votes, missed the December canvass by one vote, and eventually saw his Republican rival, Rutherford B. Hayes, inaugurated as President.)

Finally, Kennedy could have won the November contest, missed the December election by one or more voles, and seen his running mate, Lynclon B. Johnson, take the oath as President in his stead. That hasn’t quite happened in our history (though something like it very nearly did), but it could have this time. There were a number of consequential persons, including the governor of a sovereign state and editors of important newspapers, who were trying to make it happen. The constitutional and statutory conditions were favorable. Practical political considerations happened not to be.

On some future occasion they may be. It is pure luck that keeps tilings from going far awry under what is at best a caricature of democratic process. By reason of this system, the President and Vice President remain the only elective officials of the United States not chosen by direct vote of the people (a distinction senators shared with them until 1913).

The Electoral College, an American political curiosity, is established in Article II, Section I of the Constitution as revised, but only dubiously improved, by the Twelfth and Twentieth Amendments. The Electors “appointed” by the voters in their ballots on Election Day meet in their state capitals on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment” to elect the President and Vice President by two separate ballots. Their choice need not be that indicated by the voters in November. The two men they select need not even be of the same party.

Should a majority of the Electors fail to agree on any one candidate for President, then the choice devolves upon the House of Representatives, or (for Vice President in a similar case) upon lhe Senate. That is part of the clue to how Lyndon Johnson might have become President. The other part is that the Electors, once appointed, are completely free to vote as they wish, for any native-born man—or woman—over thirtyfive years of age, or for no one. It is their prerogative under the Constitution—it is their duty by the design of the framers of the Constitution—to vote as their judgment dictates. It fails to be diminished by any party pledge they may have given or any party “loyalty oath” they may have taken. No legal means exist to compel them to observe such a pledge, or to punish them if they break it—as some have done from time to time, including the year 1960.

Since the number of Electors is equal to the total of senators and representatives, which was 537 in 1960, the majority needed to elect was 269. The Electoral College cast 300 votes each for Messrs. Kennedy and Johnson and elected them; 219 each for Messrs. Nixon and Lodge; and 15 for Harry E. Byrd with 14 vice presidential ballots for J. Strom Thurmond and one for Barry Goldwater. (Hawaii’s three votes were still in question that day, but they were not material to the outcome. They were eventually cast for Kennedy and Johnson.)

The Kennedy-Johnson votes came from states in which the popularity contest gave them a plurality, no matter how slender. With one exception, they received all of the electoral votes from these states. With one exception, the Nixon-Lodge ticket received fill the electoral votes of every state whose voters gave them the edge, no matter how slight.

The first exception was Alabama, where six of the eleven Democratic Electors voted for Byrd and Thurmond, although the Kennedy ticket won more than fifty-six per cent of the popular vole. The other was Oklahoma, in which the Nixon ticket received fiftynine per cent of the popular vote but one Elector cast a motley Byrd-Goldwater ballot. Byrd’s and Thurmond’s remaining electoral votes came from Mississippi’s eight Electors, who had proclaimed their insurgency and voting intentions from the beginning, so that the people presumably knew whom they were voting for on November 8.

Between November 8 and December 19, these rebellious Electors, including the Governor of Mississippi, made energetic efforts in other southern states to persuade their colleagues to exercise their Constitution-given prerogative to vote independently ol the electorate’s indicated wishes. Had they prevailed on only thirty-five to withhold their presidential voles from Kennedy (whether or not they gave them to Byrd), no one candidate would have received a majority.