Posted by: David Offutt | December 19, 2008

Election Crises: 1796, 1800, and 1824

The Count Every Vote Act of 2005 was worthy of our support and should have been passed. It was definitely the best solution to the crises of 2000 and 2004 even though it did not solve all the problems of our election system. There is a built-in problem. The U.S. Constitution has a flaw unforeseen by its framers. When the Founding Fathers conceived the Electoral College for selecting the President and Vice President, they never anticipated organized political parties.

The Founding Fathers instituted an Electoral College that would consist of informed and experienced representatives from each state who would be chosen by eligible voters. The number of congressmen that represented a state would determine each state’s number of electors. Every state has two senators and at least one representative in the House (more based on population). Each elector would cast two votes from a slate of well-known candidates. The candidate who received the most votes and had a majority would be President, and the one with the second most votes who also had a majority would be the Vice President.

AdamsThis worked quite well until George Washington made good on his promise to retire after two terms. The next two elections were disasters: political parties had formed! In the Election of 1796, John Adams (pictured, right) got the most votes and Thomas Jefferson came in second! Two great men were picked, but they were members of opposite parties. These guys were no longer even on speaking terms! The rabid partisanship we have witnessed since the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 was nearly as bad then. It was a long four years. Nevertheless, it did work: for all practical matters, the Vice President was not yet really part of the executive branch – he merely presided over the Senate and only voted in case of a tie.

burr-lc-engravingBy the Election of 1800, each elector realized he needed to cast his two votes for two members of the same party.  What we know today as “running mates” had also been created. The two winners were the candidates of the Republican Party (forerunner of today’s Democratic Party, so don’t get confused): Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr (pictured, left). Uh-oh! They each had the same number of electoral votes! It was a constitutional tie for President! The Constitution provides that if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives will pick the President. Again, the Founding Fathers had failed to foresee the formation of political parties.

JeffersonThe Federalist Party (a forerunner to today’s Republican Party) lost the presidency and both houses of Congress in that election. However, it was the still Federalist-controlled House that would have to pick between Jefferson (pictured, left) and Burrhamilton as to which would be President. Before leaving office, the Federalists decided to sock it to the country by picking Burr, who was clearly intended to have been Vice President! Burr was also known to be an unscrupulous opportunist. It was the founder of the Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton (pictured, right), who saved us. Hamilton and Jefferson were bitter political enemies, but Hamilton knew that Jefferson wanted the U. S. to succeed as much as he. He understood the concept of the loyal opposition. On the 36th ballot, Hamilton finally persuaded enough of his colleagues to make Jefferson the President.

HenryClayTo prevent any future ties like that, the 12th Amendment was passed requiring electors to cast separate ballots for President and Vice President. Unfortunately, that did not prevent one more election from being decided by the House of Representatives.

andrew_jacksonIn the Election of 1824, each of four major candidates won in enough states so that not one of them had a majority of electoral votes. Andrew Jackson (pictured, left)had won the most popular and electoral votes, so he believed the House should pick him. Henry Clay (pictured, above) had come in fourth and was out of the running; however, he was also the Speaker of the House and used his influence to persuade the House to pick John Quincy Adams (pictured, below right) as President. When President Adams appointed Clay to be Secretary of State, the traditional office leading to the presidency, Jackson cried, “Foul!”Quincy – and continued to do so for the next four years. There may have been no “corrupt bargain,” but we can understand why Jackson thought there was. When Jackson did become President in 1828, he was the first from the renamed Democratic Party. Henry Clay soon formed the Whig Party in opposition (it was the predecessor to today’s Republican Party).

Today, does anyone believe that if the House of Representatives had to choose the President that the majority party in the House would select the candidate with the most popular votes if that candidate were of the opposite party? The Democratic Party has usually been held to a higher standard and expected to do the right thing regardless of the political consequences. However, if the Democrats were in the majority in the House, could even they be trusted to vote for a Republican who had received the most votes from the people?

We are pretty much stuck with the constitutional flaws to our election system. The states can hardly be expected to give up the power they have in the electoral voting system. The House of Representatives is not about to give up its power to pick the President if the Electoral College fails to do so. However, because of the hostile and extremely partisan and obstructionist nature of the Republican Party since the Elections of 1994, we certainly do not want the House to ever pick our President again– as it did in 1800 and 1824. But we must remember that if no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, it will be the House that decides the winner.

Therefore, we must do all we can to be sure that everyone who is entitled to vote actually gets to vote. We must be equally sure that the American voters are confident that their votes are being counted. Also, we must be reasonably certain that the candidate who wins the electoral votes of a state legitimately received the most votes in that state.

The Count Every Vote Act of 2005 made provisions that would have restored our faith in our election system. However, the mid-term Elections of 2014 allowed the Fox-Republican-Tea Party to regain the majority in both houses of Congress. Therefore, there is little hope that it will ever be reintroduced and certainly no hope that it would pass.

Note: Among other things, the Count Every Vote Act would require that (1) electronic voting machines print a voter-verifiable paper record of each vote cast, (2) there be restrictions on the political activities of those who manufacture the voting machines, (3) there be recounts in 2% of all voting places, (4) there be a minimum number of voting machines at all voting places, (5) important election officials, like Florida’s Secretary of State, refrain from engaging in partisan politics, and (6) Election Day be made a national holiday.

by David Offutt
This is a slightly updated version of an essay that was published December 8, 2005, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.

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