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Teaching With Documents:
Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote

Background

The Electoral College is one of the more difficult parts of the American electoral process to understand. While election of the president and vice-president was provided for in Article II, Section 1, Clauses 2, 3, and 4 of the U.S. Constitution, the process today has moved substantially away from the framers' original intent. Over the years a combination of several factors has influenced the Electoral College and the electoral process. These include key presidential elections such as the ones between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1796 and 1800, the development of the political party system, and the passage of the 12th Amendment.

The framers of the Constitution considered the election of the president and vice-president to be a major issue, and most were apprehensive about the obvious options. Election of the president by Congress would upset the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches, while election by the people might not put the best person in the office. Many believed that Americans were too spread out and thus unable to be adequately informed to make such an important decision.

Alexander Hamilton drafted the compromise that was to be included in the Constitution. Under this system, when a citizen voted in the presidential election, he was actually casting a vote to choose a presidential elector. In theory, a citizen's vote is cast the same way today. Hamilton's plan included eight major points.

  1. Each state would be allocated a number of electors equal to the sum of its senators and members of the House of Representatives.

  2. State legislatures would decide the methods for choosing electors in their respective states.

  3. Electors would meet in their own states, each casting two votes on one ballot, each vote for a different candidate for president.

  4. The president of the Senate would open and count the electoral votes before a joint session of Congress.

  5. The candidate who received the largest number of electoral votes, which was also the majority of the Electoral College, would become president.

  6. The candidate who received the second largest number of votes would become vice-president.

  7. In the case of a tie between candidates that also constituted a majority of the electoral votes, the House would choose the president from among them. If no person had a majority of the electoral votes, then the House would choose the president from among the five highest candidates on the list. Voting would be by state; a majority of the states would be needed for a choice to be made.

  8. The vice-president would always be the person having the largest number of votes after the president. In the case of a tie between two or more, the Senate would choose from them.

The original Electoral College plan worked successfully for the two times that George Washington was elected president. However, a major flaw became apparent after the election of 1796. According to the Constitution each elector cast only one ballot with two names on it. John Adams, a Federalist, received the largest number of votes. Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Republican, lost to Adams by three votes and became vice-president. The framers were not in favor of political parties and had made no mention of them in the Constitution. Yet here were a president and vice-president from different parties, and Adams and Jefferson were strongly opposed on many major issues including states' rights, the power and size of the national government, and tariffs. The outcome of the election of 1796 would influence the way electors would be chosen as well as how they would vote in future elections.

In the election of 1800 John Adams, the incumbent, again faced Thomas Jefferson. This time the Democratic Republican electors were urged to vote the party ticket, that is, Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr for vice-president. Seventy-three electors did just that, resulting in a tie for president between Jefferson and Burr. Under the Constitution, the vote moved to the House where Federalists desiring to embarrass Jefferson voted for Burr, forcing the ballot 35 times over six days. Finally, Alexander Hamilton reluctantly supported Jefferson and the tie was broken.

The election of 1800 had several lasting effects on the Electoral College system. It was the first time that a two-candidate ticket was promoted by a party, as well as the beginning of the practice of nominating electors who pledged to automatically vote the party ticket. This new development was directly opposed to the framers' original version of the electors as "free agents'" or informed, respectable, independent citizens from each state. By 1804, the 12th Amendment was passed, making up for the weakness in the original Clause 3. Never again would such a tie be possible, as separate ballots would now be cast for president and vice-president.

The Election of 1824 and the featured document, Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote, bring to light two important points about the electoral system, one of them constitutional and the other born of the political party system. The election of 1824 had several candidates as serious contenders. The official Republican candidate, William H. Crawford of Georgia, was nominated by a caucus, a private meeting of party leaders, but he lacked the backing of much of the party. Challenging Crawford and bucking the caucus nominating method, were Republicans Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. Nomination by the caucus had been under fire for years as being undemocratic, and the issue reached its peak by 1824. (Today most states use direct primaries to nominate candidates while a small number still use nominating conventions.)

With so many candidates in the election of 1824, it's not surprising that no candidate received a majority of votes in the Electoral College. Andrew Jackson had a plurality of both the popular vote (40.3%) and the Electoral College vote, but he did not hold the constitutional requirement of a majority of the electoral votes. For the first time, the presidential election vote proceeded to the House of Representatives. There, John Quincy Adams was chosen primarily because Henry Clay, never a Jackson supporter, placed his support behind Adams. Jackson was outraged after Adams appointed Clay secretary of state, and he proclaimed it a "corrupt bargain." While he was never able to prove any actual bribery or corruption occurred, the accusation endured and influenced the next election, as well as Clay's political career.

Today most Americans perceive the Electoral College as a formality necessitated by the Constitution. Electors meet in their states on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December and cast their votes just as they did in 1824. The votes are sealed and sent by registered mail to Washington, D.C., where they are opened and counted before a joint session of Congress when they convene in January. In recent history rarely has an elector failed to vote automatically for the candidate winning his or her state's popular votes. In 1976 a Republican elector in Washington voted for Ronald Reagan instead of Gerald Ford, the Republican Party's candidate. In 1972, a Republican from Virginia voted for the Libertarian candidate rather than the Republican, Richard Nixon.

There are critics today who point to several remaining flaws in the Electoral College system. The most obvious of these is the risk that the popular vote winner will not receive the majority of votes in the Electoral College. The winner-take-all feature of the system makes this a possibility, yet it has happened only three times in our history: 1824, 1876, and 1888. Another point of criticism is that the electoral vote distribution is not proportional to the popular vote distribution because of the automatic two votes per state provision. If you contrast the number of electoral votes per person in California and Alaska, this point is clear. "Faithless electors," as described earlier in the 1972 and 1976 examples, are also a flaw according to opponents. Yet never has a broken pledge affected the outcome of an election. Finally, critics highlight as unfair the provisions calling for choice by the House or the Senate in the case of a tie or lack of majority. Voting by state gives small states the same weight as large states, and if a state's representatives were divided, its vote could be relinquished. Additionally, a strong third party candidate could make it difficult for any candidate to earn a majority.

Different opponents and critics of the present system have developed various alternatives over the years, beginning after the election of 1796 when Adams defeated Jefferson by three electoral votes. Since that time more than five hundred constitutional amendments to reform the Electoral College have been introduced to Congress, more amendments than for any other constitutional issue. In May, 2001, there were three amendments pending in Congress, as well as two bills proposing commissions to study the Electoral College.

Proponents of the Electoral College claim that critics exaggerate the risks in our present system, pointing to the very small number of occasions where their concerns have come to fruition. Only two elections in our history were ever decided in the House and none since 1825. The Electoral College system also reduces the possibility of voter fraud; in a direct national election votes could be bought anywhere, even in heavily concentrated Democratic or Republican states where under the present system, few would bother to attempt such a thing. In addition, while small states may be overrepresented under the present system, under any other alternatives smaller states would virtually be ignored. Most importantly, supporters of the Electoral College would add that it is a tried and true system, one that is efficient, identifies a winner quickly, and avoids recounts. For these reasons, Americans would be foolish to risk experimenting with a new one.

Citizens and lawmakers have been generating ideas and engaging in debates about the Electoral College for two centuries, with the most recent resurgence occurring after the election of 2000. The question is whether this pattern will continue, or can lawmakers craft a clear and compelling plan that will generate the kind of political and public support necessary to affect a constitutional amendment. History has demonstrated that it is more realistic to expect the present system to endure, as each reform idea works to the advantage or disadvantage of a different interested and vocal group.

The Federal Register's Electoral College web page is an additional resource for more detailed information regarding the functions of the Electoral College and presidential election statistics from 1789 through 2000.

Bibliography

League of Women Voters. Choosing the President: A Citizen's Guide to the Electoral Process. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1992.

McClenaghan, W. A. Magruder's American Government. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall School Group, 1997.

Pessen, E. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1978.

Viola, H. J. Why We Remember United States History. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1998.

The Documents

Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote
Click to Enlarge

Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the House of Representatives
Record Group 233
National Archives Identifier 306207

Article Citation

This article was written by Mary Frances Greene, a teacher at Marie Murphy School, Avoca District 37, Wilmette, IL.

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