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A better understanding

December 3, 2012
The Daily News


A recent letter writer waxed nostalgically about the way the Electoral College was originally established in the Constitution and expressed the wish "If only we could go back."

Although his description of the original process was mostly accurate, he has failed to grasp the actual workings of the Electoral College during the first four presidential elections and the need for the corrections implemented in the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804 and still operative today.

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the various ratifying conventions in the 13 states throughout 1788-89, it was the expectation of virtually all people that George Washington would be elected the first president, and that John Adams should be the first vice president.

This is how the first two Presidential elections turned out, with George Washington being elected unanimously by all electors both times, and John Adams coming in a distant second. It took some quiet maneuvering behind the scenes by Alexander Hamilton to persuade various electors to divert their second votes from Adams to lesser candidates, in order to assure that Adams' vote totals would not be too close to Washington's, to avoid any impressions that the two were similar in stature and character.

Washington clearly and undisputedly was 'the best man.'

By 1796 political parties were beginning to develop in America.

With Washington's retirement, the Federalist faction advanced John Adams coupled with a southerner, Thomas Pinckney.

The Democratic-Republicans (forerunners of today's Democratic Party) advanced Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The election turned in a most unusual result. Adams received 71 electoral votes and Jefferson 68, the second candidates of each party receiving much lower numbers.

From 1797 to 1801 the president and vice-president were of different parties, a sure recipe for rancor and discord.

In 1800 Adams and Jefferson again squared off for president.

With the parties becoming better organized and more polarized (sound familiar?) fewer second-place votes were diverted and the result was Jefferson and Burr, the two members of the Democratic-Republican ticket, each received 73 electoral votes.

With the vote tied, the decision went to the House of Representatives.

This was the lame-duck House whose majority was Federalist, rather than the incoming House, whose majority would be Democratic-Republican.

With the House members voting by states as required, for 35 ballots Jefferson held eight states, Burr six states, and two states evenly divided and thus not counted.

On the 36th ballot two state delegations came over to Jefferson, giving him the presidency by 10 states to 4, with the two remaining states still divided.

The crisis had passed, this time.

As a result of these Electoral College misfirings, the Twelfth Amendment was drafted and ratified by the states in time for the 1804 election.

The amendment requires separate ballots by electors for president and vice-president.

It also revised the backup system, whereby if the presidential vote went to the House they would decide among the top three candidates.

If no VP candidate won an absolute majority, that decision would now go to the Senate, to be chosen from the top two vote-getters, with each senator voting as an individual.

This system is still operative in 2012. Take note that this was the founding generation correcting their own handiwork only a few years after the Constitutional Convention.

It is hoped that with a better understanding of history the nostalgia for "If only we could go back" will disappear from our political discourse.

William D. Rice




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