The Strange Politics in the History of U.S. Presidential Elections


Bryan Sewall 1896 election poster from Wikimedia Commons

Election Day is nearly here, and we will finally be free from all the campaign ads flooding TV and radio stations and YouTube. Until then, however, I thought that this might be a good time to look at the presidential election from a different angle – why do we elect the president the way we do?

I mean, it seems like a very bizarre, expensive, lengthy, and frustratingly complex system, right? First candidates have to run in primary elections in state after state for months to even get nominated. Then, they hold a big convention to show off how awesome their political party is before getting into the nitty-gritty of getting votes. Yet our vote on November 8 isn’t even the actual vote – the actual vote is when the Electoral College gathers in December to translate those red-state-blue-state maps into the final tally that decides who will be our nation’s leader for the next four years. Why do we use such a system?

Well, like so many strange things in politics, it comes down to centuries of history slowly evolving a system from something that seemed simple at the time into something that seems like a tower built with duct tape.

The Early Days of the U.S. Presidency

George Washington painting by Gilbert Stuart

When the Constitutional Convention was held to decide how to structure the national government, there were plenty of arguments over who should hold the executive power. Should he be chosen by Congress? By the states? Should he serve for life or be limited to one term of office? Should it even be one person, or should it be a committee?

Eventually, of course, a decision was made. The president would be one person, who would serve a four-year, renewable term, with a vice-president ready and waiting in the wings to take charge should anything happen to the president. Most notably, it was decided that the President should be chosen by an Electoral College, made up of representatives from each state and with each state getting the same number of seats as they have in Congress. The Framers decided to leave it up to the states to decide how their electors would be chosen. Lastly, they decided that each elector would cast two votes. The candidate who received the most votes would be president, and the one who got the second-most votes would be vice-president.

The Constitution was extremely controversial when it was publicly announced. Eventually, the Constitution was passed, but only as part of a political bargain with its opponents. First, the pro-Constitution faction had to promise to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and second, George Washington had to be the nation’s first president. Thus, the first U.S. presidential election was actually no more than a mere formality, as the decision had been made beforehand. The Electoral College did meet, but it then proceeded to unanimously pick George Washington as president. Not only that, but when Washington decided he wanted a second term in 1792, the Electoral College obliged and gave him another unanimous victory.

Then Washington did something strange. He didn’t run for a third term. Turns out, he wanted to leave an example for his successors for the republican ideal of limited power and a peaceful transition of power. So, he retired, and in 1796, the Constitution’s plans for electing the president were tested for the first time.

The Worst Election Ever

In those early days, it was the state legislatures that decided who its electors were, and they could cast their vote for anyone. Twelve people ran for office, and when the votes were tallied the most votes went to John Adams, a Federalist, and the second-most votes went to Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Under the rules of the time, Adams became president and Jefferson became vice-president.

Um, awkward?

This was the only time in U.S. history that a president and vice-president were from opposing political parties. It got even more awkward four years later – in the 1800 election, Adams and Jefferson faced off once again. Just imagine running against your boss while still trying to work together with him to do your job. Surely, the 1800 election would be a disaster.

Well, it was, but not for the reason you would expect. See, after what happened in 1796, the Democratic-Republican electors all agreed to cast both their votes for the two Democratic-Republicans running – Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The plan worked. Too well. The Electoral College now had a tie, and under the Constitution, it was up to Congress to break it.

Except Congress was just as deadlocked. Ballot after ballot failed to get any candidate the majority required, and finally, on the 36th ballot, Alexander Hamilton convinced some of his allies in Congress to cast blank ballots and give Jefferson the win. Thomas Jefferson took office as president, and Aaron Burr spent years steaming and stewing while sitting in the Vice-President’s Office. He believed he would be president if Hamilton hadn’t intervened, and eventually challenged Hamilton to a duel. When they met for a round of pistols at ten paces, Burr shot and killed Hamilton.

After these incidents, it was clear that it was high time to fix the system for picking the president. The 12th Amendment was passed in 1804, just in time for that year’s election. From then on, the Electoral College would pick the president and vice-president on separate ballots. Though the amendment only specifies that electors can’t cast both their ballots for people from their own state, functionally preventing the president and vice-president from both being from the same state, ever since 1804 people have treated candidates for president and vice-president as “running mates” running “on the same ticket”. Having a president and vice-president who get along just seems to be a wise idea.

The People Should Have a Say…

Dewey 1948 election image from the Library of Congress

From here on out, the main trend shaping U.S. presidential elections is a trend toward making the voice of the ordinary American matter more and more.

As early as 1800, some states experimented with having ordinary voters choose their state’s electors. In the 1824 election, 18 states let voters choose the electors. Around this same time, some states began arguing that if electors are supposed to represent the voices of the voters of that state, then they should vote the way the people of the state want them to vote. This was the beginning of the “pledged elector” – an elector bound by state law to cast his ballot for the candidate his or her state’s voters picked.

Many of the very people who wrote the Constitution were absolutely appalled by the idea. No less a voice than James Madison said pledged electors went against the whole idea of having an Electoral College in the first place, namely having a collection of the wisest men in the land deciding who should hold its most powerful position. He tried to get a constitutional amendment passed forcing states to ban the practice. He failed, of course, and the “pledged elector” system proved popular.

Today, all but two states have all the electors in that state cast their ballots for the candidate who won the most votes in that state. The only two holdouts, Maine and Nebraska, divide the electoral votes among the candidates based on how the voters in their state cast their ballots. On top of pledging their electoral votes this way, 24 states have laws punishing “faithless electors” – those who have taken a pledge to vote for the candidate the state’s voters want but then actually voting for someone else. Faithless electors are a rare occurrence even where it is legal, having only happened nine times in the past century, and no faithless elector has ever managed to change the final outcome of an election.

The current system does mean the winner of the most votes of American citizens wins the election most of the time. However, that isn’t always the case. Three times in U.S. history, the winner of the Electoral College vote didn’t match the winner of the people’s vote – in 1876, 1888, and 2000. In each of these cases, of course, it was the electoral vote that mattered. This is one of the objections to the Electoral College system, that it “lets the loser win”.

In 1969, there was a proposal to amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and have the presidency decided by a direct national vote of the people. While it breezed through the House of Representatives, and polls indicated it was a popular measure, the Senate blocked it from going forward. Since then, another reform proposal has surfaced that takes advantage of the fact that states have full power to decide how their electors are chosen. The National Popular Vote Initiative is a law already enacted by 10 states. It says that when enough states have passed the law that, collectively, they have the majority vote in the Electoral College, all electors for the states who have adopted the law will be pledged to cast their ballots for the winner of the overall popular vote nationwide.

The Primaries are Born

Of course, when voters go to the polls on Election Day, they have to pick from among the candidates on the ballots they have, unless their state allows write-in candidates. So, who gets to decide who the candidates are?

For about a century, the answer was the national conventions of the major political parties. These were gatherings of top party leaders, who would decide their party’s candidate based on who they thought would do the best job representing their party. This meant that often decisions were made based on backroom deals that benefited political machines, so reformers within the largest political parties demanded a change. Thus was born the primary election – a sort of pre-election where ordinary party members vote on who their candidate will be.

Each state sets its own rules and dates for primary elections, and this is a large part of why primaries are such a long and complicated process. The other part, of course, is the national conventions. Yes, national conventions still exist in all major political parties, but just like in the Electoral College, most of the delegates in attendance are pledged in advance based on the votes of the party members. Some states make all their delegates vote for the candidate with the most votes, some apportion their delegates so each candidate’s share of that state’s delegates matches their share of the votes of that state’s party members, and some states have crazy formulas that make no sense other than to try to somehow control the outcome. Not only that, but in the Democratic Party, so-called “superdelegates” (mostly high-ranking Democrats) are able to attend and vote without having to be pledged to anyone, a practice that has been widely criticized.

The good news for critics of the current primary system is that the states and the political parties are able to change their rules at any time, which means, unlike with the general election, a constitutional amendment isn’t needed to update the system. As we speak, the Democratic Party is changing its rules regarding superdelegates. As more people demand that the system for choosing the president should be “more fair”, and more people elect reform-minded candidates, it seems likely that the system for electing our nation’s leader at both the state and national levels will continue to evolve. Politics is strange, indeed.