There is now a debate in Pennsylvania about a shift from a winner take all approach to the electoral college representation of the state to a district approach that would allow the electors to split the vote. I have extremely mixed emotions on this proposal.
How Electors are allowed to vote has changed state to state over the years so maybe a little historical background will help.
During the debates at the Federal Convention of 1787 (now called the Constitutional Convention) the method for electing Presidents was a hotly debated issue. The two extremes were presented: one completely by popular vote and the other was election solely through The Senate. Part of the complication involved George Washington who everybody pretty much understood would become the first President of the United States and he was presiding over the Federal Convention. Nobody really wanted to offend him. When this part of the debate finally surfaced it was addressed that it was a decision necessary to secure for future President’s who would follow Washington effectively removing any criticism of Washington from the debate.
The process of the election of a President underwent several transitions until the compromise was arrived at which became Article II, Section 1. The content of the argument was strongly against popular vote because of the unfair representation of the smaller states in such an election. The smaller states felt that two or three large states could control the entire election process in the larger states favor. The larger states conceded the possibility of such a thing. With the 3/5 representation of slaves awarded to the South, Northern States feared that the North would never see a President unless a fairer form of representation was in place. That led to the compromise.
The elector system provided that each elector had two votes. One of those votes could not be for a resident of their own state (a step to help protect small states). The winner of the electoral votes would become President and the one with the second highest votes would become Vice-President. In the first election there was only one person running for President, there were two candidates for Vice-President. 6 of the 10 states chose their chose electors by popular vote. The other three states had not ratified the Constitution yet so they could not vote.
It is often stated that George Washington won the first election by a unanimous vote. He had no opposition so that shouldn’t have been surprising. What is surprising is that only about 1.3% of the population voted. Only 38,818 people voted. In 1792 for Washington’s second term it was worse. Only 13,332 people voted. The emergence of a two party system in 1796 doubled voter turnout from 1788 with 66,841 voting.
Washington became President and served two terms. After announcing he would not seek a third the next election saw the evolving of a two-party system. The results of that election was that the leader of the one Party became President and the leader of the second became Vice-President. That generated a Party war which resulted in something many historians feel was one the nastiest election in America’s history. Talk about the politics of personal destruction-that would perfectly define the election of 1800 to a Tea. That campaign was so bitter that it quite literally destroyed the once amicable relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that was not resolved until many years later.
That election had Hamilton trying to assure a Federalist victory so he influenced the electors to vote for Jefferson and Aaron Burr both Federalist candidates. Adams lost but since the electors all did as Hamilton suggested there was now a tie between Jefferson and Burr that had to be resolved in the House. It took several days and several votes to resolve this resulting in the proposal of the 12th Amendment in 1803 which was ratified in 1804 in time for the next Presidential election. It was during the debates on this vote that hostility broke out between Hamilton and Burr. That hostility never really ended finally resulting in duel in 1804 which took the life of Hamilton.
As another part of Hamilton’s effort to shift manipulation of elections in 1800, he persuaded strong Federalist States to choose the electors only from their legislative Bodies. Pennsylvania followed his suggestion but Hamilton’s plan backfired. When the Electors had been chosen by the people Pennsylvania voted 14 to 1 for Jefferson in 1796. Chosen by the legislative body, the electors split their vote 8 to 7 in favor of Jefferson in 1800.
The 12th Amendment in 1804 still gave the electors 2 votes but added the ruling that one would be specifically for President and the other specifically for Vice-President.. From its inception, the states would decide the electors and the rules governing them. In the two elections between Jefferson and Adams, Pennsylvania electors split their votes between the two. In the first election it was 14 for Jefferson and 1 for Adams, in the next election it was 8 for Jefferson and 7 for Adams. Since that time Pennsylvania has been a winner take all state with the electoral college.
Other states have moved in and out of electoral winner take all positions throughout the history of elections and the Constitution allows for how the electoral process of deciding electoral voters as well as how their votes are counted being decided in each state.
The first census was taken in 1790 and the total population of the United States was under 4 million. Today the population of Pennsylvania alone is 12,702,379.
Considering the debates ay the Constituional Convention, I see this current discussion framed around a return to the debate in the Constitutional Convention except now it is within the State of Pennsylvania. Should the voice of the largely populated districts of the state be the voice that represents the whole state or should the state be divided by electors giving each district a voice through their elector?
If our electors had represented their districts the face of Pennsylvania would have been 11 electors for Obama and 10 for McCain, instead Obama received all of the votes of the electoral college. Obama still would have won Pennsylvania but it would have also demonstrated how divided the state was. Is casting all 21 votes for Obama in 2008 closer to a pure democracy that 11 to 10? I’m not sure I know the answer to that but I do think it becomes a more relevant picture of the actual vote. While I’m not passionate in the defense, I lean towards the 11 to 10 option and see that as less progressively Democratic and more restoratively Republican in form. As I said, I lean that way but but am not so convinced that I couldn’t be persuaded otherwise with a strong enough argument.
Knowing that your district had a more equal voice in the State election for President, would this increase voter turnout as well as party efforts to get out the vote in those districts? That’s another very important question to ask, one that can not be answered until the process is in place and that requires the consideration of the impact to the voters of the State of Pennsylvania in a change to the electoral college; one that we made before to strengthen the Federalist Party position shortly before the Federalist party collapsed.
We have been so indoctrinated to believe that we are a democracy and that the majority rules forgetting that we are a Republic and that rules are in place to protect the minority and this includes the Presidential election. The notion that only the popular vote of the people should elect a President was held by a very small minority of the Constitutional Convention. That small minority argued passionately but resolved under compromise to a ruling that had weaknesses but a great strength as well. The vote of the small state would be given strength through the electoral process. Within the framework of the state, should this also apply? Right now, I don’t know the answer to that but you can bet I’ll be following it closely and listening to all arguments.