The Electoral College: Does It Choose The Best Man?

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Immediately—the Constitution’s word—upon formall) learning of this situation after it convened on January 6, 1961, the House of Representatives would have had to go into session lo try to elect a Chief Executive. The constitutional rules governing this contingency require election by a majority of all the slates, each stale casting one vote, as decided by the majority of its delegation in the House.

The House lineup of states on that day was: Democratic majority in the delegation, 29 states; Republican majority, 17; tied, j. On a straight party division, then, Mr. Kennedy could have been elected in the House (limited in ils choice to the leading contenders “not exceeding three”). But it the congressional delegations of lour or more slates had followed the lead of the rebellious Electors and refused Mr. Kennedy their votes, he would not have had a majority of the fifty states and would not have been elected. Mr. Nixon could have won only if nine Democratic states had joined the seventeen Republican states to vote for him —a most unlikely development.

There would thus have been a stalemate. The rules would have kept the House voting, but if the four “anti-Kennedy” states had held out, the deadlock would have remained unbroken.

Now let us examine the situation with respect to the Vice Presidency. Our “rebelling” southern Electors might also have withheld their second-place ballots from Lyndon Johnson of Texas. In that case, the election of Vice President would have fallen to the Senate. Here a majority of all the senators, one vote per man, is needed to elect, with the choice restricted to the two top contenders. As there were 64 Democratic and 36 Republican senators, it is unlikely that Senator Johnson could have failed of election. Fourteen Democratic: senators would have had to go on record against him to deprive him of a majority.

Now we have Lyndon B. Johnson elected Vice President, a stalemate for President, and January 20 approaching. The Twentieth Amendment prescribes that “if a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term … then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified.” And that would have depended on how long the recalcitrant congressmen held out; it could have been to the end of their term—two years, and then two more, if they were re-elected. At any rate, on January 20, 1961, Lyndon Johnson would have been sworn in as President, and Senator Kennedy would have been sitting with the other senators, looking on.

When South Carolina’s Electoral College convened on December 19, its chairman spoke of the “crackpot correspondence” he and others had received urging their defection. He expressed the hope that “you haven’t been influenced by it.” His colleagues hadn’t, nor had any other Electors—with the exceptions already noted—in 1960. Political discretion dictated a wiser course. But if in 1860 it was conceivable that eleven states should secede from the Union against all political discretion, it is not inconceivable that in some not-too-distant election a group of Electors might see power or coercive advantage in this sort of maneuver.

In 1876, the strange workings of the electoral system were to bring the nation closer to civil war than it appeared to be in 1861 the day before Fort Sumter was attacked. With Tilden 264,292 popular votes ahead of Hayes and one disputed vote short of victory in the Electoral College, Congress ducked behind a wholly extra-constitutional device—an “Electoral Commission” —to solve an ugly dilemma. The atmosphere was such, wrote the historian Paul L. Haworth, that “probably more people dreaded an armed conflict than had anticipated a like outcome to the secession movement of 1860—61.” Only Tilden’s aloofness from the strife, and lavish promises made on Hayes’ behalf by his supporters, prevented an unhappy end when the commission, by a vote of eight to seven, chose Hayes. (The story of the Hayes-Tilden election is told in “The Election That Got Away,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1960.) Installed in office, Hayes made good on his promises to the Democrats, which included withdrawal of federal troops and carpetbagger governments from those southern states in which they still remained. But nothing was done to insure against a recurrence of the near-shambles of that presidential election.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, the Electoral Commissioner who cast the deciding vote that gave Hayes the Presidency, bitterly termed the Electors “party puppets.” As far back as 1823, Thomas Hart Benton, senator from Missouri, declared that “every reason which induced the [Constitutional] convention to institute Electors has failed. They are no longer of any use, and may be dangerous to the liberties of the people.”