TGIF: Our Electoral College still the key vote for campaigns
Election Day 2020 has passed. While some unfinished business remains to be sorted out, one fact is certain. Voters — approximately 160 million in all — have discharged their civic responsibility by casting ballots.
The foremost item of unfinished business involves the Electoral College, which in mid-December casts the definitive presidential ballots.
Presidential elections held in recent years have become learning opportunities for many Americans, myself included.
Presidential elections in 2000 and 2016, especially, taught us a great deal about the Electoral College and how important the number 270 is. Winning the popular vote, which means the most votes, doesn’t guarantee victory. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now: The Electoral College makes the presidential election less of a national contest, and more of a series of state elections.
The Electoral College was devised after founding fathers debated whether to trust the public to elect presidents, or to assign that task to a chamber of Congress. Later, Thomas Jefferson described the Electoral College as “the most unfortunate blot in our constitution system.”
Others draw comparisons to baseball’s World Series. In 1960, the New York Yankees scored a total of 55 runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who scored only 27. But Pittsburgh won four close games — and thus the World Series.
In most presidential elections, the popular vote has been decisive enough that the Electoral College becomes something of an afterthought. Before 2000, the candidate with the second-highest number of popular votes had been declared the winner only three times. However, it’s now happened twice in our lifetimes, and the stars seemed aligned for it to happen again this year.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams became president after four candidates split the electoral votes. The decision moved to the U.S. House of Representatives under provisions of the Twelfth Amendment. Adams had finished second to Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote with a 10 percent margin. Nevertheless, Adams narrowly emerged as the winner when the House voted.
In 1876, Samuel J. Tilden topped Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote, but after the Electoral College met, 20 electoral votes remained unresolved. In a compromise that resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the end to Civil War Reconstruction, Hayes became president with the understanding he would not seek a second term. Tilden became the only presidential candidate to lose the election after winning an outright majority, not just a plurality, of the popular vote.
In 1888, incumbent Grover Cleveland lost the Electoral College to Benjamin Harrison despite garnering 90,000 more popular votes. Four years later, Cleveland won the rematch, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
In 2000, Al Gore received about 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush out of more than 100 million cast, but problems in several counties in Florida prompted recounts and legal action. A Supreme Court ruling handed Florida, and the Electoral College, to Bush.
This prompted some to begin asking if the Electoral College is obsolete in 21st century politics. For the first time in more than a century, the election was won by the candidate who finished second in the popular vote.
In 2016, it happened again, but the result was indisputable. Donald Trump easily captured the Electoral College, even though Hillary Clinton had about 2 percent more voters — some three million in all.
A Constitutional amendment would be required to eliminate the Electoral College, so don’t look for the system to be going away soon.
Last week, as each state dropped into either the “red” or the “blue” column, the differences in how states conduct elections became apparent. For example, in 21 states and the District of Columbia, voters can register and vote in the presidential election on Election Day. By contrast, Texans must register 30 days in advance.
Early voting procedures also vary widely. I have found that in seven states, a voter who casts a ballot early — before Election Day — can void that ballot and cast a new one if he or she has a change of heart. That means some Americans really can indeed vote twice, although only the last one counts. In Wisconsin, voters even get a third chance.
The 2020 election is one for the history books, and chapters are still being written.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.