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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
In view of this, there is some irony in the fact that the opposition that defeated the Lodge-Gosset amendment in 1956 was superbly led by the man who might four years later have been the victim of the anachronistic Electoral College—the junior (and freshman) senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. He skillfully led the attack that not only sent it back to committee, never again to emerge, but won away many of its sponsors.
Not the least interesting aspect of the debate was a seeming reversal of traditional attitudes. The crusade for change was pressed by conservatives of both parties; liberals on both sides of the aisle stood shoulder to shoulder against change. Defending status quo, liberal Senator Kennedy argued that no urgent necessity for alteration of the system had been proven. “No minority Presidents,” he asserted, “have been elected in the twentieth century.” (This was rather inaccurate, for Wilson in both his terms and Truman in 1948 had received less than half the popular vote.) “No elections have been thrown into the House of Representatives,” Kennedy argued further, “no breakdown in the electoral system, or even a widespread lack of confidence in it, can be shown.” Of course, that was four years before an Oklahoma Elector defected, and a governor and influential newspapers were inciting others to the same course, and an election involving Kennedy himself was won by 49.54 per cent of the popular vote over 49.09 per cent for the loser.
The restraints on the democratic process that stemmed from the Founding Fathers’ distrust of the people are being trimmed away by the march of history. The first cut resulted from the power-pull that developed early between the Jeffersonian agrarian and the Hamiltonian mercantile interests. Each side sought to increase its strength by extending the voting prerogative to those in its sphere of influence formerly considered less deserving. Next came the leveling effect of rigorous frontier life in the newly opening western lands; the inevitable universal manhood suffrage spread its effects “back home.” Since then, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-third Amendments have vastly enlarged the rolls of those entitled in practice to exercise the sovereignty that all “the people” hold in theory. Finally, the Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Carr — the Tennessee reapportionment case—has led to a series of legislative and judicial moves that will further increase the balance of our voting system.
It is perhaps not too much to say, then, that in the foreseeable future yet another of the inequities imposed by archaic custom and the accident of state lines may be eliminated. The choice of their Chiei Executive by the citizens of the United States will be by direct popular election—one voter, one vote, no matter where he may be on Election Day. Then the best man—at least in one meaningful sense—will always win.