Is it time to do away with the Electoral College?
Thoughts from a former elector
New Westminster, B.C.
Many readers of The Norwegian American are thinking about ribbe, as well as the much maligned lutefisk, and fattigmann (cookies made with cream and brandy, rolled and deep fried) this season. But there is something that has to be done on Dec. 19: elect a president and vice president of the United States.
While we thought the long, tortuous presidential campaign and election was over on Nov. 8, think again.
On Dec. 19, six days before many of us gather around the Christmas tree, 538 electors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia will meet and vote for the next president and vice president.
I laughed in my research about the Electoral College when I came across this line from one of my favorite books on the presidency. It said: “Individuals who serve as electors … are usually persons who have contributed heavily to party coffers (read: money) or who have served the party with distinction.”
Well, I don’t know about “serving with distinction” but I sure didn’t “contribute heavily” to the political party’s coffers in being elected as a Democratic elector in 1980 and 1984.
Sadly, while I was elected as an elector from Washington State’s Fifth Congressional District in 1980 and 1984, my state did not vote Democratic. Which meant I did not get to travel to Olympia to vote, because the state voted for Ronald Reagan. So the Republican electors traveled to Olympia to cast their votes.
That being said, it is interesting to see all the social media comments about “getting to the electors” before Dec. 19—one even posted all of the names of the Democratic and Republican 2016 electors with the hope of “persuading” some to not follow the majority vote of their state.
Among all this, many are casting a critical eye at the Electoral College, but could we do away with it?
There are some who feel the smaller states would be “ignored or trampled” by the bigger states if we did. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case: while most of Trump’s support comes from smaller states he still managed to rack up 62.2 million votes to Clinton’s 64.2 million.
However, here is the rub for many who believe in democratically electing a president: Salon.com reports that as of Nov. 23, Clinton has garnered a two million vote lead over Trump, and counting.
The reason for this discrepancy is that in a state like California, Clinton racked up a super majority of 61.7 percent to Trump’s 33.4 percent. In smaller population states, Trump garnered even greater majorities: 70.6 percent to 22.9 percent win over Clinton in West Virginia or 69 percent to 22.6 percent win in Wyoming.
One meme circulating on the internet says it takes 705,454 Californians to equal one electoral vote while it only takes 194,717 Wyomingites to equal one vote.
A split between the popular and Electoral College votes has happened before. Like in 2000 when Al Gore captured 540,520 more votes than the eventual winner, George W. Bush. In the Electoral College, it was Bush with 271—one more than needed to win—to Gore’s 266 in one of the closest electoral votes.
The Electoral College was created by the Founding Fathers when they drew up the U.S. Constitution in 1787. They decided electors should decide who should lead the executive branch of the federal government, not the voting public (propertied white male voters). Instead, an elite body of men based of the same number of senators and representatives a state sent to Congress would decide.
Back in the late 1700s and just into the 1800s, there were no political parties. Electors were independent and could vote as they liked. The man who received the most votes became president while the runner-up became vice president.
That worked when there was unanimity of philosophy around government, as there was with Federalists George Washington and John Adams. But by the 1800 election, politicians split into two factions: Federalists, who believed in a strong, central government and backed incumbent President Adams; and Democratic-Republicans who backed Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
The fourth presidential election of 1800 was actually decided by Congress because the Electoral College resulted in a tie, oddly, between two members of the same political party: 69 each for Aaron Burr (of noted dueling fame who shot and killed Federalist Alexander Hamilton) and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s opponent was Federalist John Adams.
Even in 1800, behind-the-scenes planning (The beginning of “smoke-filled” politicking?) by Democratic-Republicans planned for one of the electors to abstain from casting his second vote for Aaron Burr. This would have led to Jefferson receiving one electoral vote more than Burr, making Jefferson president with Burr becoming vice president.
The plan failed. Each elector who voted for Jefferson also voted for Burr, resulting in a tied electoral vote. The Constitution laid out that if a tie occurred the decision would be left up to the House of Representatives.
However, even this wasn’t easy.
After 35 votes beginning on Feb. 11, 1801, in which neither Jefferson nor Burr obtained a majority, Jefferson was finally elected on the 36th ballot.
As a presidential historian, I could go on and on about past candidates who won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.
It would be an uphill climb to change the Constitution: two-thirds of the Congress must pass legislation before it is sent to the state legislatures. Then, three-fourths or 30 states would need to ratify it.
Yet tradition isn’t enough to keep the Electoral College. It’s time we seriously think about democratically electing our president and vice president.
Scott Larsen is a Roosevelt historian who delivers talks about FDR and Crown Princess Martha in the Pacific Northwest. If your group is interested in having Scott speak, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.