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How little today’s presidential election process resembles the framers’ intent

For the first hundred years of the republic, presidential candidates were expected to stay home, say nothing specific about what they would do if elected, and modestly and demurely do nothing by way of gauche self-promotion. Seriously.

photo of a single voting booth
REUTERS/Darren Hauck
Those who need a little extra motivation to vote would naturally be more inclined to turn out if they think their vote might make a difference than if they know in advance which ticket is going to carry the state.
A fact, from a recent New York Times piece headlined: “How Trump Is Running to Snatch Victory From the Jaws of Defeat, Again” caught my eye.

That fact: “turnout in the close swing states that draw the vast bulk of campaigning is about 16 percent higher than elsewhere.”

There are two obvious explanatory reasons for this.

Fact 1: The campaigns devote dramatically disproportionate shares of their effort to turning out every possible vote in their favor in the swing states that will decide the outcome of the election.

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Fact 2: Even without that effort by the campaigns, voters know whether they live in a swing state. Those who need a little extra motivation to vote would naturally be more inclined to turn out if they think their vote might make a difference than if they know in advance which ticket is going to carry the state.

As regular readers of this space know, I am not the biggest admirer of the U.S. system of politics and government, nor of the oft-claimed perfection of the U.S. Constitution. I’ve railed against the Electoral College system often. Here’s an overview in an old piece of mine, titled “10 reasons why the Electoral College is a problem” from a MinnPost series published way back in 2012.

But, to tell you the truth, although I have often noted that, by the standards of developed democracies around the world, U.S. turnout rates totally suck, I had never focused on the degree of the E-College’s impact on turnout between swing states and flyover states.

Reading the Times piece, it immediately made sense. Just as it also made sense that, if Donald Trump can make a glitch in our system work to his advantage, it’s not hard to imagine him getting re-elected in 2020 while losing the popular vote by an even larger margin than he did in 2016. In his own adorable way, he often brags about this way of winning while losing, as if it makes him especially clever, while not acknowledging that it’s at least a tad awkward to claim a mandate when you have won neither a majority nor a plurality of the votes.

Because I am also a history nerd and have paid a lot of attention to the framers of the Constitution, I’ll just offer a couple of more paragraphs to make the argument that the distortions above have nothing to do with anything the framers “intended” when they invented the Electoral College.

The E-College was a late-breaking idea at the Constitutional Convention, designed to solve several problems you wouldn’t normally think about. The framers wanted a reasonably strong executive (although nowhere near as strong as what the presidency has turned into). But they were stumped on how such a person would be chosen.

A straight-up election was unimaginable to them, based on the existing society. There were no national parties to nominate candidates, no national media to inform the national electorate, no tradition of (or desire for) candidates to race around the country promising things and begging for votes.

For the first hundred years of the republic, presidential candidates were expected to stay home, say nothing specific about what they would do if elected, and modestly and demurely do nothing by way of gauche self-promotion. Seriously.

(Nothing that we would call actual campaigning was done until the 1890s. William Jennings Bryan was the breakthrough figure in that regard in 1896, but he lost to William McKinley, who followed the older tradition of staying home and addressing small delegations who came to his home and he would receive them in the tradition known as the “front porch” campaign, but say nothing much of substance.)

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It’s also likely that the framers did not mean the Electoral College to actually choose the president. If you read the unamended Constitution that was written and ratified in the late 1780s, some surprising things jump out at you.

The framers didn’t mandate, nor really expect, that states would hold popular elections in connection with the presidential selection process. (In the absence of national parties or a national media, it’s a little hard to see how that would even work.)

So the process required each state legislature to choose a few trusted state leaders to serve as “electors.” These would be the kind of respected members of the elite (white men, one might add), who would be more likely to know about some of the outstanding potential presidents from around the country.

The framers assumed that most of those electors would vote for men they knew, likely from their own states. So the original Constitution required that each elector, voting at a meeting in the state capital, to write down the name of two men they thought would be good presidents with the important requirement that one of them not be from their own state. Without such a requirement, in that highly localized society, most electors would vote only for men they knew from their own state, and leaders of the big states would always get the most electoral votes, but it was unlikely that, with the likely exception of George Washington, no one would ever get a majority of even the electoral vote.

But the framers probably didn’t believe that, after Washington, the winner of that “electoral” vote would become president. The Constitution required (and still requires) that the president be named on an absolute majority of the electoral ballots.

Everyone understood that George Washington would win the first election. (And, in fact, he was named on every ballot, although each elector had to vote for two men for president (not one for president and one for vice president. That was later changed by amendment).

And it seemed likely that, after Washington, no one might be named on a majority of the ballots. Remember: No two-party system yet. No national party nominating conventions. No national media.

So the Constitution said, and still does, that if no one was named on a majority of the Electoral College ballots (as seemed likely to them would occur, after Washington) the names of the top five finishers would be forwarded to the U.S. House, which would choose the president on (this is pretty amazing) a one-state one-vote basis. (The rule of five would be amended to the top three.)

OK, although I find this history endlessly interesting, I fear I may have worn out my welcome for one day among those less obsessed with constitutional history than I am. But I hope I have at least made the case that roughly zero percent of how we now choose our presidents (including the “swing states” analysis with which I started) resembles anything in the original plan.