Will an Eighteenth-Century Election System Paralyze America in the Twenty-First Century?

Is the United States a democracy or not? That is surely the question on the minds of millions of people as the electoral college system decides who will be the next president of the United States.

The Electoral College was originally intended to be a major part of government in a deliberative republic, in which dispassionate, informed, independent Electors — members of a unique institution called the Electoral College, not average people given to passionate opinions — would be the final decision makers. The Constitution, however, failed to anticipate the rise of political parties. As a result, two centuries later parties today select a slate of Electors, presumably loyal to their parties, to represent their candidates. While the names of the Electors are not usually on the ballot, voters actually select them rather than the president directly.

Electors chosen by their parties are no longer expected to exercise independent judgment. They are duty bound to vote for the candidates of the party of which they are members.

The electoral college system was created to avoid confusion, possible corruption, irregularities and intrigue that the founders believed would characterize the direct popular election of the president. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68 expressed great confidence in the ability of the Electoral College to avoid such problems. Contrary to Hamilton's faith, the temptation for Electors to wheel and deal is great. In a majority of the states, they are not legally bound to vote for the presidential candidate they have pledged to support.

In the past, stray Electors have been historical oddities. In 1984, for instance, an Elector in West Virginia pledged to Walter Mondale switched to Ronald Reagan. This did little more than add insult to injury since Reagan had already swamped Mondale.

The historical precedent for today's confusion that best illustrates the potential for political chaos is the 1876 presidential election. Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic candidate from New York, received 51 percent of the popular vote.  But Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio won the election with one more electoral vote than Tilden after Republicans challenged nineteen electoral votes in Louisiana, South Carolina and, yes, Florida.

With charges of fraud flying, Congress set up an electoral commission to settle the issue of who would be the next president. The commissioners were supposed to be like the original Electors: dispassionate and independent. In reality, the commission split along party lines with an eight-to-seven vote that awarded Hayes all nineteen of the disputed electoral votes. As a result, Hayes gained the presidency by one electoral vote without a popular majority.

Historical evidence about what actually occurred behind the scenes is murky. But we do know that much wheeling and dealing took place before congressional Democrats went along with the commission's recommendations. Promises of economic aid to help rebuild the war-torn South were made but never fulfilled. Once in office, President Hayes withdrew federal troops supporting Reconstruction, enabling southern whites to subordinate blacks for another one hundred years. Thus, the party of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation abandoned blacks in exchange for the presidency. This would not be the first or last time that political agreements rested on the backs of African Americans.

Given the closely divided Congress that will convene in January, the potential for further intrigue beyond our current electoral deadlock is infinite. At least, the outcome of the election of 1876 suggests as much.

The impact of Florida's disputed vote on the presidency and America's role in the world is yet to be determined, but the historical precedent of 1876 is disturbing. The 1876 election, coming after the failed attempt in 1868 to impeach President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, led to a long decline in the presidency and twenty years of political stalemate. Will this be the pattern for the next twenty years? In a rapidly changing world of economic globalization and political instability, the world can ill afford to have a politically paralyzed United States.

Robert M. Saunders is a visiting Fulbright professor of American history at Hong Kong Baptist University.

November, 2000