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Derek Coleman: Electoral College has more than 200-year history in U.S.

Dec. 02, 2012 @ 06:52 PM

Tell me, dear readers, how many of you out there can tell me what the 12th amendment to the Constitution is? Don’t worry if you are not sure, if someone had asked me I wouldn’t have been able to tell them until a few weeks ago, despite the fact that it has played a big part in all our lives over the past few months. Why has it been so prominent? Because the 12th amendment sets up the Electoral College and defines the method by which the president and the vice president are elected.

It first came to be law back in 1804 after there were several problems with the prior methods for electing our country’s leaders and it provides very precise rules for the electoral process. One of those rules states that if no candidate gets an overall majority of the Electoral College vote, then the House of Representatives shall decide who should be president and the Senate gets to vote on the vice president.

This has only happened once in the 208 years since the amendment was ratified, and that was way back in 1824.

In those early days of the republic, the country only had one political party, called the Democratic Republican party. There had been another party, the Federalist Party, but this had disappeared as its support drifted away. You would think that a one-party system would make elections easy, but in this case the Democratic Republicans found they had four separate candidates for the presidency, each of them with a different vice-presidential candidate.

This rivalry would eventually split the party, with the supporters of General Andrew Jackson forming into the Democratic Party, and those who supported John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay becoming the National Republican Party, who then became the Whig Party. The Whigs lasted some 20 years and then dissolved, with most of their members transferring allegiance to the new Republican Party of the Lincoln era.

In any event, the 1824 election was held as usual, but when the Electoral College votes were counted on Dec. 1, the results produced a problem. Andrew Jackson got 99 votes, John Quincy Adams 84 and William Crawford and Henry Clay got 44 and 37 respectively; 131 were needed for a majority in those days. Thus, under the provisions of the 12th amendment, the presidential vote went to the House of Representatives. Luckily, the vice presidential contest gave an outright winner in John Calhoun and so there was no contest for that position.

The amendment only allows for three candidates and so Clay, who got the lowest number of votes and was Speaker of the House, was eliminated, a fact that would have repercussions later. In those days, the inauguration of a new president took place on March 4 and so it was not until Feb. 9 that the representatives voted. The result was a surprise. Andrew Jackson had received more than 40 percent of the popular vote and the highest number of Electoral College votes; everyone, including him, thought he would win the House ballot, but he didn’t.

Henry Clay hated Jackson and urged his supporters to back John Quincy Adams and on the first ballot Adams got the votes from 13 of the 24 states and was declared the winner.

There was no arguing with the result, but shortly before the ballot a Philadelphia newspaper printed an article which said that Clay had sold his support to Adams in exchange for the promise that he would become Secretary of State in the new administration. The article was written anonymously, supposedly by a member of Congress, but nothing was done about it.

When Adams took office in March of 1825 he did indeed offer Clay the position and Clay accepted, saying that if he declined people would think the rumors about him were true. Adams himself had held the post of Secretary of State and so had the three presidents before him and it was almost taken for granted that by making the appointment Adams was naming his preferred successor. Andrew Jackson was furious and called the appointment a “corrupt bargain” but he had his revenge. Four years later he beat Adams at the election and became president himself.

The Electoral College is a peculiarly American form of election. Nowhere else in the world has it and to me, an Englishman who is used to the leader of the party with the most seats being the Prime Minister, it seems a little strange. At first glance it would appear to give disproportionate votes to the smaller states and undue influence to the swing states, but that is just my opinion and if it works for the people of America, then long may it last.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.