A History of the Unloved Electoral College

Opponents have ranged from John Adams to Richard Nixon. Why has the system survived?

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

The 2016 election results caused plenty of bitterness—not the least of which had to do with the Electoral College. Donald Trump won the presidency a year ago this week but lost the popular vote—something that has happened a handful of times in the republic’s history and twice in the past two decades. In a December press conference, President Barack Obama declared the system to be past its sell-by date: “It’s a carry-over from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”

What were the Founding Fathers thinking? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they created a unique system for choosing the president. Each state got a number of electors based on the total of its U.S. senators (two) and U.S. representatives (as set by census). Each state legislature could decide the method of picking electors, but if the electors’ vote was inconclusive, the choice would be sent to the House of Representatives. “The original idea,” wrote Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling in 1992, “was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.”

The system didn’t last long without repairs, precipitated by the crisis of the 1800 election. Electors could vote for two names for president, with the runner-up becoming vice president. With the Federalist Party’s John Adams defeated, it came down to the candidates of the Democratic-Republican party. But because of a procedural error, Thomas Jefferson tied with his running-mate Aaron Burr. Awkwardly, the tiebreaking vote went to the House of Representatives, which the Federalists still controlled. It took 36 ballots for Jefferson to win his majority.

It’s not surprising that four years later the 12th Amendment was ratified. Among other changes, it separated the vote for president and vice president into two processes.

The next change to the electoral college, as it came to be known, happened without constitutional changes. One by one, the states began making their presidential picks by popular vote, which the electors were then supposed to echo. The move led to the winner-take-all system for each state that all but Maine and Nebraska practice today.

This was not what the Founding Fathers had intended. In the 1820s, the aging James Madison suggested various ideas for reform, such as having each congressional district vote for an elector, or even having each member of the electoral college offer two choices for president (neither would become vice president). Congress briefly considered abolishing the college completely, with President Andrew Jackson declaring in 1829 that the more “agents” there were to do the will of the people, the more likely it was that their will would be frustrated.

But nothing more happened.

A serious attempt at abolition died in the Senate in 1934. In 1969, after segregationist George Wallace got 46 electoral votes and raised the possibility that neither major-party candidate would win a majority of electors, President Richard Nixon tried to abolish the electoral system—with the aid of his defeated rival, Hubert Humphrey. But Southern and small-state senators stopped the plan with a filibuster.

Why has reform failed so often? As many have pointed out, the electoral college was an attempt to balance the power of more populous states with that of more rural ones, to balance the needs of the nation with those of the states. Many have called the solution imperfect, but perhaps it’s a good match for our remarkable but imperfect democracy.

‘America or Britain? It’s a tough choice for a mother to make’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Some people need to recreate on the outside the loneliness and alienation that they feel within. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino put it quite succinctly: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”

That isn’t how I feel, even though I have spent all my life in the twilight of belonging. I am, to my core, an Anglo-American, neither wholly one identity nor wholly the other. I suppose you could call me a rootless cosmopolitan. Yet I have always felt the opposite. Being the “foreigner” in every place I’ve lived has made me love the two countries I call home all the more. I think that’s what originally led me to study history. As a child, floating somewhere between California and Dorset, I saw difference and similarity in a wholly different light from my peers. Nothing was completely familiar, and yet nothing was entirely foreign, either. As Rudyard Kipling wrote: “What do they of England know who only England know?”

Now that I have children of my own, I have had to think about this very deeply. Do I want them to be British, American or a hybrid like me? The decision goes beyond the question of which passport to have. Where they live and go to school will become the mould that produces the fully formed adult.

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‘Here’s the first crack in the shield around America’s bad teachers’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Redd Angelo

Photo: Redd Angelo

A nightmare scenario is unfolding for the Californian parents of 12-year-old Jane Smith. Their child has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in A&E. The doctors say that Jane is bleeding internally — only an immediate operation will save her life.

Unfortunately it’s a Wednesday. That’s the day the surgeon on call is Dr Jones, aka Dr Death. He has killed every patient under his care for the past 10 years. The hospital would give anything to be rid of him. But Jones has tenure and that means he’s untouchable. In the past 10 years only 0.0007% of Californian surgeons have been sacked for incompetence. Bad luck to the Smiths; little Jane picked the wrong day to need surgery.

As far as I know, this scenario has never happened. American doctors simply aren’t that powerful. But until three months ago its teachers were. The dismissal rate of 0.0007% is a genuine statistic. That is to say, over the past decade just 19 incompetent teachers in California have been sacked out of a workforce of almost 300,000.

It’s no secret as to why: teachers in the state receive tenure after a mere 18 months. From then on, union regulations ensure that it takes years of hearings and can cost more than $1m (£610,000) to remove a single teacher.

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‘Famous Lost Words’ – The Wall Street Journal

Famous Lost Words“Trigger warning” used to be a clinical phrase in psychiatry. Nowadays, the term has gone mass-market. It is often used in blogs and humanities departments to highlight a text that might upset an unsuspecting reader.

In the not too distant past, going to college meant being exposed to all kinds of subversive, rude and downright shocking literature. This often caused the authorities great unease. Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.) was the first educator to denounce the pernicious effects of the written word on impressionable minds. In “The Republic,” he argued that literature was a breeding ground for immoral behavior. The solution was to keep fiction out of the hands of children (ignorance being the sincerest form of protection). A century and a half later, in 213 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang put theory into practice and ordered the mass burning of all books save those on medicine, prophesy, agriculture and a few other topics.

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‘Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters’ – The Sunday Times

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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