Flunking Out of Electoral College

Oh, what would we do without a President to entertain us? Granted that the entertainment is usually grade-B if not triple-X, but it beats re-runs of “Leave It To Beaver.” Presidents nevertheless come and go (often going more quickly than they had planned to) while the body that elects them — known, appropriately enough as the Electoral College — lingers on.

The College, as I shall call it here, has been picked on for generations, like another persistent nuisance: the dandelion. And, like the dandelion, the College has its brief moment of glory and then fades away to be forgotten until the next time it trumpets its existence.

As an institution, the Electoral College is as useful as the British monarchy, but it doesn’t draw tourists. Perhaps we would not scoff at the College if we could turn a profit on it by selling the TV rights to its proceedings.

Let us consider its merits. How could anyone criticize the institution that twice unanimously elected George Washington to the presidency? And what about the foresighted elector who, in 1960, declined to vote for Richard Nixon, as he was supposed to do, and voted instead for Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.? You would be convinced, were we to end the story here, to kneel nightly in thanks that the College has not been abolished. But there is more to the story.

One of the serious objections to the College is the fact that it thrice — in 1824, 1876, and 1888 — prevented the election of the presidential candidate who captured the greatest number of popular votes. That’s an entirely negative view of the situation. The College has chosen the winner of the most popular votes in 40 of the 43 elections where the popular vote was tallied. That’s an average of .930, which would be tops in any league. Let us scrutinize the three elections in question.

Andy Jackson got 43 percent of the minuscule number of popular votes cast in 1824, and he received a larger number of electoral votes than his chief rival, John Quincy Adams. But, because Jackson lacked a majority of electoral votes, the election was decided by the House of Representatives, which chose Adams. It was a good thing, too. If Old Hickory had been chosen in 1824, he probably would have won in 1828 and 1832 (as he did), which would have meant another four years of muddy boots on White House furnishings, to the dismay of Jackie Kennedy.

On the other hand, a string of three Jackson victories would have meant, as well, that FDR would not have set a precedent in seeking a third term. Thus the anti-Roosevelt amendment limiting Presidents to two terms would not have been adopted and Dwight Eisenhower might well have served as President until his death in 1969. In which case…the nation would have been spared the Viet Nam War, which Eisenhower kept the U.S. out of while he was President.

Preferring an honorable peace to polished furniture, I regret that Andy Jackson was not elected in 1824, as he would have been if the popular vote had prevailed.

The election of 1876 pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden won 51 percent of the popular vote, but there were doubts about the returns from several southern States. A special commission was set up to determine how the electoral votes of those States should be cast. By an odd coincidence — there being eight Republicans and seven Democrats on the commission — it voted eight to seven to give the votes to Hayes. And Hayes won the election of 1876 by one electoral vote.

President Hayes and his wife — known as “Lemonade Lucy” — were teetotalers. The air of sobriety emanating from the White House cast a pall over the Washington social scene and give rise to the long-held view of Republicans as party-poopers. Which is probably why the Republican Party was in the minority for so long. With more Republicans in Congress, tax rates would never have risen to the heights that they did under the Democrats, and would be even lower than they are today. Clearly, we would be better off today if the election of 1876 had been decided by the popular vote.

What about the election of 1888? The incumbent, Stephen (“call me Grover”) Cleveland received 90,000 more popular votes than did Benjamin Harrison. The vagaries of the electoral process nevertheless caused Harrison to beat Cleveland by 233 to 168 electoral votes. Not one to cry in his mustache cup, Mr. Cleveland came back to trounce Mr. Harrison in the election of 1892.

Suppose Cleveland had won in 1888, thereby ending Harrison’s political career. Think of the loss to posterity because these two trivia questions could not then be asked:

  • What President served two, non-consecutive terms of office? (Cleveland)
  • What President was the grandson of a President? (B. Harrison, of W.H. Harrison)

The 1888 case favors the College. Without it our store of trivia would be smaller.

The forgoing analysis argues, nevertheless, for the abolition of the Electoral College. Had the popular vote prevailed in 1824 and 1876, we would have been spared a disastrous war and an outrageous tax burden. The legacy of 1888 — the addition of two trivial facts to our abundant store of trivia — is, well, trivial recompense.