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The Electoral College: Does It Choose The Best Man?
It nearly Put Burr in the saddle in 1800 It failed to confirm the people’s choice in 1824, 1876, and 1888 It could have ditched Kennedy in 1960
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
Over the years since then, the weight of political reality has crushed, one by one, the frail hopes of the idealists among the Founding Fathers for the ineffable scheme they devised. If there remained a vestige of possibility that Electors might yet be chosen with an eye to their capacity to exercise superior judgment, it was made a mockery by the 1948 Electoral College of Michigan. Faced on their voting day with six vacancies in their ranks, the remaining thirteen Electors fell to the task, as prudence requires and the state law permits, of filling them. They descended to the streets of Lansing, rounded up half-a-dozen agreeable passers-by, and swore them in. Their qualifications? They belonged to the right party.
But we can still have it both ways. In that same year, 1948, one of Tennessee’s eleven Electors, “appointed” by the Democratic voters, refused his vote to the Democratic candidate, Harry S. Truman; he gave it instead to the Dixiecrat candidate who had received only onefourth as many votes as Mr. Truman. In Alabama eight years later, an Elector appointed on the ticket of Adlai E. Stevenson gave his vote to a local segregationist judge. Reminded of his party “loyalty oath” and his “moral duty,” he replied, “I have fulfilled my obligations to the people of Alabama. I’m talking about the white people.”
The Constitution was drafted by men who, when they wrote “We, the People,” were also talking about the “white people”—not in the Alabaman’s literal and contemptuous sense, but in the figurative and accustomed sense of the select. The franchise was largely confined to the propertied, and thus, in the context of the times, the better educated. This agrarian element was strong, and there, the Founders thought, power would remain in good hands.
That the United States would always be a small nation with a rural economy and a narrow suffrage—on such a misconception was the new Constitution based. Some of the delegates believed they were creating a union which in time would inevitably disintegrate into its component states; their hope was that unity would last long enough to teach the states how to live together peaceably. Others were convinced that the republic must inescapably develop into a monarchy; their hope was that by the time it did, the people would have succeeded in establishing safeguards against too despotic a rule. The men of vision and good will held as firmly as they could to their principles. But, as Franklin explained while considering the document, “several parts” of which he confessedly disapproved: “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. …”
The passing years have aggravated the defects and anomalies of the Electoral College. The once-rural economy has given way to an intensively industrial order, great open spaces to surging metropolises. Large segments of the once-stationary populace have been forced into peripatetic pursuits; we are a nation on wheels. Places once weeks and months of arduous travel apart are now only minutes or hours away by air, split seconds away by ear or eye. And the suffrage is now all but universal. What was in 1787 “if not perfect at least excellent” seems to many in 1962 inequitable, illogical, and unjustifiable.
The selection of members of the Electoral College is based, to begin with, on certain mathematical inequities. Some of them are merely the result of the federal system. As each state, however small, has two senators (Nevada’s 285,000 people wield as much power in the Senate as New York’s 16,000,000) and has, in addition, at least one representative, it consequently has at least three Electors. Each of Alaska’s three Electors in 1960 stood for fewer than 21,000 voters; each of New York’s forty-five Electors represented more than 161,000 voters. This seems to make an Alaskan voter worth eight times a New Yorker. In practice, on the other hand, each New York voter appears to exert fifteen times the influence in the election—assuming that the Electors fulfill their “moral duty,” and assuming also that the voter has voted for the winner in his state. For we come now to another bedeviling fact in the arrangement.
A candidate whose share of popular votes is one more than that of his nearest rival in any given state (though it may be, in a multiple contest, only a small minority of the total vote), receives all of that state’s electoral votes—all his Electors have been “appointed.” This is the unit or winner-take-all system. In New York this meant in 1960 forty-five votes. (The new reapportionment has reduced it to forty-three.) A candidate who (by any slender margin) may win the electoral votes of New York and eleven other large states may become President even if—to carry the example to extremes—his opponent wins one hundred per cent of the popular and electoral votes of the other thirtyeight states.
Only in the rare instance—it hasn’t happened since 1824—when the election falls to the House of Representatives (or the Senate for Vice President, which has occurred only once, in 1836) do the states have proportionate equality in the election of the Executive. Otherwise one candidate’s tiny plurality in a large state may cancel out substantial blocs of votes for an opposing candidate in a number of smaller states.