It's a Mess, But We've Been Through It Before
A popular majority was frustrated three times in the past. Democracy survived
The presidential election leaves us all baffled, bothered and
bewildered. It should be some consolation, though, that this is
not the first time the Republic has endured tight elections and
confusing results. Nor is it the first time the winner of the
popular vote has been denied the presidency. Nor is it the first
time the Electoral College has been a source of trouble.
The Electoral College, a last-minute addition to the
Constitution, distorts the popular vote. It is impossible to
explain to foreigners. Even most Americans don't understand it.
It produced its first election crisis in our very third
presidential election 200 years ago. As originally formulated,
the electors were not to vote separately for President and Vice
President. The presidency went to the electoral-vote winner, the
vice presidency to the runner-up. It was thus conceivable that a
vice-presidential nominee could be elected President.
In 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the presidential and
vice-presidential nominees of what was then called the Republican
Party (which later became the Democratic Party), ended up in an
Electoral College tie, with 73 votes each. The choice devolved on
the lame-duck House of Representatives, with each state's
delegation voting as a unit.
The Federalist Party had lost the presidency but retained a
majority in the House. Most Federalists hated Burr less than they
hated Jefferson and voted accordingly. On the first ballot, with
nine states necessary for election, Jefferson had eight, Burr
six; two were divided. Ballot after ballot followed, day after
day passed, and a sense of crisis began to spread across the
country. The whole succession procedure seemed to be failing.
Finally Alexander Hamilton, who deeply distrusted Burr, persuaded
enough Federalists to go to Jefferson--"I trust," he said, "the
Federalists will not finally be so mad as to vote for Burr"--that
the House at last elected Jefferson on the 36th ballot. (Four
years later, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel.) The crisis of 1800
led to reform: the 12th Amendment required that the Electoral
College must thereafter vote separately for President and Vice
The next election imbroglio came in 1824. General Andrew Jackson
won the popular vote over John Quincy Adams. He also led Adams in
the Electoral College, but with the electoral vote divided among
four candidates, Jackson fell short of the necessary majority.
Once again the choice went to the House. This time, with the
support of Henry Clay, a contender who had dropped out of the
contest, Adams won on the first ballot--and soon made Clay his
Secretary of State. The 1824 crisis produced charges of a
"corrupt bargain" that facilitated Jackson's election in 1828.
The next succession crisis came a half-century later, in the
aftermath of the Civil War. In 1876 the Democratic candidate,
Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, won the popular vote. It
appeared he had won the electoral vote too. But Southern states
were still under military occupation, and electoral boards in
Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina rapidly disqualified
Democratic ballots in an effort to shift the Electoral College
majority to the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes of Ohio.
In 1876 as in 2000, both parties sent into Florida a posse of top
lawyers and other notables. Among the Hayes advocates was General
Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur.
The Republicans controlled the Senate, the Democrats the House.
Which body would count the electoral votes? To resolve the
deadlock, Congress appointed an electoral commission. By an
8-to-7 party-line vote, the commission gave all the disputed
votes to Hayes. This represented a supreme election swindle, and
there was a season of great bitterness. As a final noble gesture,
though, Tilden asked his supporters not to riot outside the
Some Democrats threatened to obstruct the electoral-vote count in
Congress. But the Compromise of 1877 appeased them by terminating
Reconstruction and turning the South over to the ex-Confederates.
Only three days before Hayes' Inauguration, the Electoral College
by a single vote declared Hayes the next President. The nation,
North and South, accepted the result with a surprising lack of
In both 1824 and 1876, the popular-vote winner was deprived of
the presidency. But in neither case was the Electoral College to
blame. The House of Representatives denied the presidency to
Jackson, and the rigged electoral commission denied the
presidency to Tilden.
The first time the Electoral College directly denied the
presidency to the winner of the popular vote was in 1888. Grover
Cleveland, running for re-election, beat Benjamin Harrison by
91,000 in the popular vote but lost, 233 to 168, in the Electoral
College. It was a confusing election. Fraud tainted both results.
Yet nearly 80% of eligible voters had gone to the polls, and
though the popular-vote winner lost the presidency, no one in
1888 seems to have questioned the legitimacy of the result.
Before the 2000 election, the only case of Electoral College
misfire occurred in 1888, but there have been seemingly murky
elections in the years since. In 1916, when Woodrow Wilson sought
a second term, the New York Times rushed to announce his defeat
by 10 o'clock election night. Charles Evans Hughes, the
Republican candidate, went to bed thinking he had won. Two days
later, it became clear that Wilson had won after all.
In 1960, in another very close election, John F. Kennedy carried
Illinois by only 9,000 votes. Given the skill of the Chicago
Democratic machine in extracting votes from vacant lots and
graveyards, the myth has arisen that Mayor Richard Daley stole
the election from Richard Nixon. In fact, if Nixon had carried
Illinois, Kennedy would still have won 276 to 246 in the
If George W. Bush is confirmed as winner of the Electoral College
vote and the presidency, while Al Gore wins the nationwide
popular vote, this result will undoubtedly revive the movement to
replace the Electoral College with direct popular election of
Presidents. This sounds plausible enough, but is it really a good
The abolition of state-by-state, winner-take-all electoral votes
would speed the disintegration of the already weakened two-party
system. It would encourage single-issue ideologues and eccentric
millionaires to jump into presidential contests. The
multiplication of splinter parties would make it hard for
major-party candidates to win popular-vote majorities. Cumulating
votes from state to state, they could force a runoff if no
candidate got more than 40% of the vote--and then could extract
concessions from the major parties. The prospect of double
national elections could be alarming to a bored and weary
electorate, especially when the final prize might go to the
candidate who came in second in the first round.
There is a simpler reform that would ensure the popular-vote
winner a majority in the Electoral College: award a bonus of 102
electoral votes, two for each state and for the District of
Columbia, to the winner of the popular vote. Under this reform,
there would remain a temptation to bring moral pressure on
individual electors to reject the decisions of their states and
shift their votes to the popular-vote winners. This invokes the
myth that the Founding Fathers expected the electors to be free
agents. The evidence is that the Founders fully expected the
Electoral College to execute the popular will in each state. And
the problem of the "faithless elector" can easily be handled by
abolishing individual electors while retaining the Electoral
The Republic has faced succession crises before--and the
Star-Spangled Banner yet waves. There is no need to get too
excited over this one.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s autobiography, A Life in the
20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, is being published
this month by Houghton Mifflin.