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A Popular Vote

The Electoral College was hated by Jefferson, loved by Hamilton, used poorly by Burr, and exploited by Harrison.

I have ever considered the constitutional mode of election ultimately by the Legislature voting by States as the most dangerous blot in our Constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit and give us a pope and antipope. - Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to George Hay, 1823.

Thomas Jefferson was talking about the Electoral College system.[1] Jefferson was uniquely suited to despise the system, having already been stuck in an electoral tie in the 1800 election with Aaron Burr. As the electors couldn't decide who was going to be the next president, the House had to decide the election, and it was so partisan that it held thirty-six runoffs (Jefferson eventually won). Back then, the second-place winner of the Presidential election contest became Vice-President, and so Jefferson was stuck with Burr for his first term. The two men hated each other.

If there's one person Jefferson might have hated as much as Burr, it was Alexander Hamilton.[2] Hamilton authored the Federalist Papers, which thought the Electoral College was the greatest thing since canned beer:[3]

It was ... desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the [office of the Presidency] ... 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.[4]
Only on the $2 bill, eh, Jefferson?
Only on the $2 bill, eh, Jefferson?

So not only did the Electoral College throw a monkey wrench into Jefferson's election into office and make him share elbowroom with one of his direst enemies, but his other nemesis was ringingly endorsing it. The man had ample cause to hate the process.

Letting Someone Else Take the Reigns

But what was Hamilton talking about? The original design of the Electoral College. The plan was that you'd vote for someone whose judgment you trusted, and then he would go off and vote for who he thought would be the best chief executive (women wouldn't get in the game for another 120 years). This way, Hamilton argued,

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.

Fat chance, huh? Ever since we lurched into a two-party system, which was pretty much immediately after the Constitutional Convention called it a day, voters stopped voting for somebody's wisdom. Instead, they wound up voting for a political party. The Constitution never really prescribed how electors are supposed to be appointed, so the parties took it upon themselves to select electors with unusual degrees of loyalty.

Recall that Hamilton was excited that the population votes for the electors' wisdom. The Supreme Court agreed with him in 1952 (Roy v. Blair) when it decided that states can't constitutionally require that electors vote for the parties they represent. Thus, if an elector got a wild hair and felt like voting for Mickey Mouse, nobody could stop him (or her). Seven times in the last century, this happened, although it usually wasn't Mickey Mouse. Most recently, in 1988, an elector from West Virginia decided to cast a vote for Lloyd Bentsen for President and Michael Dukakis as veep, rather than the other way around.

What makes this possible, other than ambiguity in the Constitution, is the little-known fact that the electors don't meet on Election Day. They meet a couple weeks later, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (December 18, 2000).

Seeing a loophole here, the fledgling Whig party tried to exploit the process in the 1836 Presidential contest. They decided to run three different Presidential candidates (William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Hugh White) in different parts of the country, hoping to win an electoral majority and figuring it would instruct its electors to vote for just one guy later. One of the major reasons the Framers didn't bother with a popular Presidential vote in the first place was not because they thought the American population was stupid (although sometimes we have to wonder) but rather that, lacking mass communication in those days, it just might be ill-informed.

Stacking The Deck

By having three local guys, the Whigs could get around this problem and deal with the consequences of actually winning later. In the period between the popular election and the convening of the Electoral College, the party would select its actual candidate. They lost anyway, but people got to wondering: what happens if a candidate dies after the popular vote but before the College gets together? Fortunately, we know, because it's already happened.

In 1872, Democratic candidate Horace Greeley (of "Go West, young man," fame) died in the interim period between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. He'd lost, so nobody was that upset; but there was the problem of the electors selected by the public to vote for him. They wound up splitting their votes over a few leftover Democratic candidates; three electors voted for Greeley anyway, which further emphasizes exactly how free the electors are to cast their votes, no matter how kooky.

Harrison says, "Sucks to be Grover!"
Harrison says, "Sucks to be Grover!"

The quirks in the distribution of the electoral votes can cause problems, too. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison got elected over incumbent Grover Cleveland, who actually had a stronger showing in the popular vote. Cleveland whomped the poo out of Harrison in 18 states, while Harrison only slightly edged Cleveland in 20. Ergo, Harrison won, but more people voted for Cleveland.

Outdated And Going Nowhere

Even with these errors, Electoral College system has managed to hold on pretty well. It sustains criticism pretty much every election cycle. To abolish it, the country would have to get its act together enough to pass a constitutional amendment, and we daresay Electoral College reform could quite possibly bore the country more than any other conceivable legislative act. It would never work anyway. Think we're kidding? There have been no less than seven hundred Congressional attempts to reform, re-legislate, or abolish the Electoral College system in this nation's history. So, like it or no, if the past is any precedent, it ain't going anywhere. The last time it saw major tinkering was after Jefferson's election way back in 1800, and it's held, admirably or no, ever since.

Which brings us back to that contest. Jefferson's hatred for the system notwithstanding, he needed it to become President. And while Hamilton famously hated Jefferson back, he hated Burr more. So he pressured the House, which, you'll recall, was charged with the duty of selecting the President in the event of an electoral tie, to vote pro-Jefferson. Hamilton distributed propaganda calling Burr, among other things, "a profligate; a voluptuary in the extreme." Such behavior, and some backroom dealings, got Jefferson into office. It also ticked off Burr enough to shoot Hamilton dead a few years later. Oops!


  1. Here's what the Constitution has to say about it:
  2. While never actually president, this man managed to get on the ten-dollar bill.
  3. Canned beer itself didn't show up until around 1935.
  4. Federalist Paper no. 68.


  1. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Joseph J. Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
  2. Thomas Fleming. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. Basic Books, 1999.
  3. Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist Papers. The New York Packet. , 1788.
  4. The Electoral College. (referenced online at http:// ) Jackson Country [Missouri] Election Board, 2000.
  5. The Electoral College and the National Archives and Records Administration. (referenced online at National Archives and Records Administration, 2000.
  6. The Office of the Federal Register. Frequently Asked Questions on the Electoral College. (referenced online at National Archives and Records Administration, 2000.
  7. Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1823. FE 10:264

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