Alexander Hamilton’s Electoral College and the Modern
Alexander Hamilton’s Electoral College and the Modern Election Alexander Hamilton’s Electoral College and the Modern Election Colin Campbell Prof. R Hurl TA: Matthew Lesch Tutorial: Thursday, 4:00 PM, UC 67) U. S. Government and Politics (POL 208 Y1Y) 1 November 2012 Alexander Hamilton’s Electoral College and the Modern Election When American’s leaders assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, they originally had the goal of solving issues that had arisen from the Articles of Confederation, which had governed the young nation since separating from Britain.
Instead, they drafted a completely new document that established a more permanent and effective central government. With it, they established the office of President of the United States. Rather than being directly elected by the people or selected by the legislature – as described by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers – the head of state was to be elected by an independent institution that existed solely for the purpose of finding a man who was up to the job: a group that would become known as the Electoral College.
However, as the political nature of the country evolved in an unanticipated and partisan way, the independence of this body became increasingly irrelevant, resulting in a system which fails to meet the standards of a true modern democracy. Although the Electoral College system has never substantially been reformed, it is now a mere formality which leads to the types of campaigns which it was designed to prevent. In The Federalist, Number 68, Hamilton argues that the president should be elected by individuals selected exclusively for that purpose, rather than by an existing body or by national popular vote. Hamilton, par. 8) Although never named as such in this or any other constitutional document, this would be the basis for the institution now known as the Electoral College. Rather than submitting the national leaders-in-waiting to the rigors of campaigning, which would lead to what amounts to a popularity contest, the Founding Fathers believed that “a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. ” (par. 3) Unlike the Congress, however, the Electoral
College would never meet as a single body. Each state’s electors would convene in their respective capitals, then send notice to Washington of their votes. Hamilton believed that keeping the electors apart would reduce corruption by making it more difficult for any one political faction to manipulate the contenders, allowing them to focus exclusively on serving the interests of their state. (par. 4) Furthermore, selecting the president through this independent body would mean that he is accountable solely to the people and not to a legislative body which could depose of him if the two branches were not in agreement.
His re-election would not be controlled by legislative enemies and allies. (par. 6) Each state would be granted as many electors has they had seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate combined, effectively compromising between the preferred plans of either all states having equal weight (as they do in the Senate) or distributing power based on population (as it is in the House). If no candidate were to receive a majority of the votes, the House would convene to select the President from the top five candidates. par. 7) Hamilton wished for the vice-president to be elected by the same body and through the same method, except that the Senate would select the winner for this office if no candidate won a majority. (par. 9) He notes that this is one of the few aspects of the new constitution that received little dissent, and the final system was ultimately very similar to the one he described. The vice-presidency was, until the passage of the twelfth amendment in 1804, awarded to the second place-candidate.
However, this inherently resulted in a rival with opposing political views being first in line to the presidency, and therefore the system was changed to allow the electors to vote for both positions separately. (Nardulli 23) Each state is free to determine how its electors are selected, and various models have been used in the past. At the time of enactment, however, several assumptions about the system were made that would quickly prove to be untrue. It was generally believed that electors would selected from individual districts in a manner similar to congressmen, would exercise personal judgement when voting.
It was also believed that they would frequently endorse candidates from their home state, ultimately meaning that no candidate would win a majority and that Congress would determine the victors from a short list of candidates. (41) Some states appointed their electors legislatively rather than through election, meaning that voters did not cast a ballot for either the president or the Electoral College. The emergence of organized political parties by the third election in 1796 led to nationally coordinated campaigns that severely reduced the number of expected candidates, and thus the likelihood that no one would achieve a majority. 44) The results of the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore – in which Gore won the popular vote but narrowly lost the Electoral College after a controversial recount in Florida – highlight what is the largest criticism of the Electoral College: it is possible for a candidate to win the Presidency without winning the popular vote. Because less populous states have more electoral votes per capita than larger states, individual votes are disproportionately stronger. (Bennett 9) Detractors of the College claim that this is inherently undemocratic, as all votes should be considered equal in a true democracy.
Final victors have only lost the popular vote on two other occasions (in 1876 and 1888), and there has therefore never been substantial support for re-examining the system until 2000. Although the disproportionate power of smaller states has been commonly criticized, it is in fact the winner-take-all method in which states pledge their electoral votes that is responsible for discrepancies with the popular vote. It is currently possible a candidate to win the presidency by only winning as little as eleven states.
He could win by a single vote in each of these states, but lose by a significant margin in every other state, yet his electoral count would still indicate him as the majority winner. Five of the seven elections between 1964 and 1988 were won by significant margins in the Electoral College. On each occasion, the winning candidate took at least forty states while barely winning more than 60% of the popular vote. This was most pronounced in the 1984 race between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. The latter received 40% of the popular vote, yet received the electoral votes from Minnesota and D.
C. Furthermore, in 1968 (when some states were won by independent candidate George Wallace) Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey both won approximately 43% of the popular vote, yet Nixon won the election outright with 56% of the Electoral College. (Bennett 37-42) While none of these instances resulted in the popular vote being overruled, they do demonstrate that elections are not a matter of getting the most people to vote for you, but rather the importance of getting the most people in the right places. Analysts have suggested that his year’s race between President Obama and Governor Romney could produce a first for the Electoral College: a tie. Although unlikely, this cycle’s set of swing states, along with the states that each candidate is presumed to win, allows for a specific combination of votes wherein each candidate would receive 269 electoral votes. While the college has failed to produce a winner in the past, it has always been due to the presence of a third-party candidate. It is also predicted that Republicans will retain control of the House, while the Democrats will continue to hold the Senate.
Should the electoral votes come to a tie, these two chambers would be responsible for selecting the President and Vice-President, respectively. Assuming each party would support its nominee, the result would be a Romney-Biden government. (Hamby) Not since the twelfth amendment was passed have opponents been simultaneously elected to the lead the executive. While such a scenario is mathematically rare, it is absurd that a system of government would allow for such a possibility. Despite the counterintuitive relationship that the Electoral College has with the popular vote, there are some key benefits to keeping the system.
It emphasizes the federal nature of the United States; that it is not just a monolithic country, but rather a federation of sovereign governments. Indeed, the fact this is found in the fact that each state is free to select their electors any way they choose (through legislative appointment, districts, or winner-take-all). Most states (the exceptions being Maine and Nebraska) use the winner-take-all model to maximize their influence. If they were to be allocating their electors proportionally in a close race, opposing electors would essentially cancel each other out. Nardulli 28) Furthermore, guaranteeing a certain amount of power to each region ensures that it’s power will not be reduced based on local factors such as bad weather. For example, even if New Jersey experiences very low voter turn-out because of Hurricane Sandy, those that do manage to get to the polls will still be able to exercise its fourteen electoral votes on behalf of the state. The real problems with the Electoral College do not stem from the mathematic anomalies and misrepresentations, but rather because it serves a political culture that Alexander Hamilton had not envisioned.
He explicitly states that it is meant to find the best man for the job, rather than subjecting the country to tumultuous elections. In modern times, however, electors are designated by their political parties, usually legally bound to vote for a particular candidate, and not even named on the ballot. It is no longer independent individuals who actually consider all possible candidates, but instead a mere rubber-stamp for the will of the electorate. Bennett 55) The Electoral College system envisioned by Alexander Hamilton was designed to be independent of the usual partisanship, with the principle goal of finding an individual who would best be suited as the country’s chief administrator and head of state. While it still has the arguable benefit of forcing candidates to pay attention to less populous states, its members are effectively bound to follow the will of their constituents and are therefore unable to fulfill the intended mandate of their position. Works Cited Bennett, Robert.
Taming the Electoral College. Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. Hamby, Peter. “Electoral College Tie Possible in Obama-Romney Race. ” CNN. com. Cable News Network, 30 July 2012. Retrieved 29 October 2012. <http://www. cnn. com/2012/07/26/politics/electoral-college-tie/index. html> Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist Papers: Number 68. 1788. Retrieved 29 October 2012. <http://avalon. law. yale. edu/18th_century/fed68. asp> Nardulli, Peter. Popular Efficacy in the Democratic Era. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.