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A Brief History and Commentary on the Electoral College


Sour Grapes:
 It is that time, once again, to exercise that most sacred of American freedoms, namely the right to vote on those people who are supposed to be working for our best interests. However, with our current political system, and especially the existence of the Electoral College, many people may feel that their vote doesn't really count. For the sake of completeness, and to help everyone be on the same page, I am going to cover some of the Electoral College's history, and what it is supposed to do. Most high-school American History books do not really cover this information, and are, generally, books of Great American Mythology more than actual history and just briefly touch on the mechanics of Government. There are a multitude of subjects I could cover from this sentence, alone, but this is about the Electoral College, so that is what I shall write about.

Once the Revolutionary War was won, and the Founders got down to the serious work of creating a government, and choosing the very first leader of the United States, there was a quandary. You have to remember that America, originally, was made up of thirteen states, all very suspicious of a central government, and had a very small population spread along the Eastern Seaboard. It was also believed that political parties were mischievous, if not down right evil, and that a proper gentlemen does not actively seek out office. Instead the office was suppose to seek out the proper person for the job, and court them, instead of the candidate courting the electorate that happens today. So how to choose somebody for the most difficult job in the country, without a nation-wide communication network aside from the early post office and newspapers, and without having the candidates campaign. Never mind keeping from upsetting the careful balance of power between the president and congress.

There were several ideas for how the president could be chosen. The very first was to have congress choose the president, but it was thought that choosing the president could become a very divisive issue that could have the members of congress resentful of one another. You have to remember, the idea of political parties was considered at best very bad, and at worst evil incarnate, so the Founders were interested in preserving the peace and keep divisiveness to a minimum. A second idea was to have state legislatures choose, but it was felt that this would allow the states to erode federal authority and undermine the very idea of a federation. Third was the popular vote, but at the time, the populations of the various states could not get information from beyond their states' borders. You have to remember, at the time, interstate travel was troublesome at least, and practically impossible at most. So there was a legitimate worry about a candidate from a more populous state winning a popular vote, or the populations of the various states voting for their local candidate over somebody from elsewhere. Again, this was before national campaigns, and having the candidates wooing the electorate instead of vice-versa. There was also a lack of communication networks, and a lack of political parties, they being thought to be reprehensible. Also, at the time, the Framers of the Constitution believed that there could be as many as five different candidates from various regions of the country. Lastly, of course, there was a real fear that slave-holding states would have an unfair advantage in the area of politics, especially with population-based programs.

Mind you, there was a clique among the Founders that thought that such an important political decision should not be left in the hands of the people. Alexander Hamilton was one of the primary members of a group known as the Federalists, and neither he nor his cronies could be called “men of the people”. They had great disdain for the masses, Hamilton being quoted as calling them a “great beast”. They felt that government should be dominated by the banking and merchant classes, they being better educated than the farmers and laborers that made up the rest of the population. It could be said that today's money-dominated political landscape had its roots in Hamilton's elitist attitude, but I digress. Those who opposed the Federalists, including Thomas Jefferson, felt that they were creating a form of elected monarchy, with the rich and powerful getting preferred treatment over the common people. Sound familiar? Sorry, I digress, yet again. However, this rivalry was the precursor to the very first political parties in the United States. I have to include yet another digression to say that the political party system has turned out to be as toxic as those early Americans believed. They have led to blind loyalty, and blind obedience to the party line on the part of their members.

The Electoral College has not changed, very much, from its original incarnation. There were some minor changes to accommodate the reality of political parties, true, but it is mostly unchanged. Nowadays it seems like the Electoral College votes for the president and the vice-president, instead of the runner up in the presidential election becoming the vice-president. Still, it started out with each state choosing electors equal to its total representation in Congress, House and Senate seats combined. The electors would meet in their states and cast two votes for president. The winner would be the person with the majority of the votes. The Founders thought that no one, aside from George Washington, would be able to win with a clear majority. With the absence of a clear majority, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives, where each state represented would have a single vote. The runner up, originally would have become the vice-president. That changed, and the electors would cast one vote for the president, and one for the vice-president.

Now there have only been four times where the Electoral College voted for a different candidate than the popular vote. The first three took place in the early days of the country, and the latest became something of a joke due to the hanging chad dilemma. However, America's collective memory is quite long and people, while maybe not knowing what it does, remembers that the Electoral College does not have to vote with the popular vote. This makes a lot of people feel that their vote does not, really, matter; especially if their candidate lost the race. Also for about forty years, since the first opinion polls were instituted, the American people have wanted the presidency to be decided by popular vote. People, especially the people of America, hate not having their voices heard, and the Electoral College is seen as a way of stifling the will of the people. Again, this is especially true if their candidate was the loser, and our lovely political parties are SUCH good losers. Not. Now, it is possible that once the people of America have a direct hand in the choice of President, the people of America would start to actually educate themselves about each candidate's policies, records and platforms instead of merely following the party line. It's not a large hope, given the current “us verses them” political atmosphere, but one can hope.


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