The Hiring Committee
When we first read the Federalist Papers, in our early twenties, we were most impressed by the Founders’ understanding of human nature, and the nature of power. This was not an idealistic government built for the Shining City on the Hill — it was designed for the dirty, grubby people in the valley.
The part we all know is the Separation of Powers, with Checks and Balances. But the design was much more thorough than that: overlapping variations in terms, protection for smaller states, a notorious method to offset the power of the Free North against — let’s not kid ourselves here — the Slave South.
Where Congress represented the interests of States and Citizens, the Presidency was designed to represent the nation as a whole. And, as the most powerful position in their structure, the Founders were very particular about how someone might achieve that prize.
To that end, they created a hiring committee.
Like Representatives — and unlike Senators — members of the hiring committee would be chosen by popular vote in each state. To protect the committee from undue influence, members could not hold other federal office. Once chosen, members would be expected to — deliberate. Think about it. Consider the qualifications of various applicants.
rapping writing in Federalist 68, explained the purpose of this unique function:
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.
And beyond the qualification of being a 35-year-old native-born White male, there was this:
Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.
In the event the hiring committee could not reach a majority decision, the top five applicants would be sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.
The hiring committee was a thoughtful, thorough system — and within a dozen years, it had broken down completely.
The flaws were already apparent during the first contested election following George Washington’s two terms. Northerner John Adams and Southerner Thomas Jefferson were the leading candidates to fill the position — and, as runner-up in the committee’s decision, Jefferson became rival Adams’ vice president.
This was what the design intended, but not what the participants sought. Instead of independent freethinking committee delegates, the first trick to winning the contest was to stack the committee itself through the actual election of its members. The second, more complicated, trick was to distribute committee votes so all your partisans listed your applicant as one choice, then all but one listed your preferred Veep choice as the second.
In other words, squeeze “party tickets” into a system that didn’t recognize political parties.
It didn’t work in 1796. It backfired spectacularly in 1800.
Once again, rivals Adams and Jefferson were rival candidates for the position. And both had designated running mates for vice-president, even though the system didn’t account for that.
Adams lost, but he had gamed the system so his committee members knew to submit one less vote for his running mate.
Jefferson was not as clever. He won the most committee votes — but tied with his putative running mate Aaron Burr, throwing the decision to the House.
And there a deeper flaw emerged: While hiring committee members were allotted to states on the basis of their Congressional delegations — one member for each Representative, plus two Senators — the House itself could only cast single votes by state.
It took 36 ballots to accomplish the intended result. And, within three years, the 12th Amendment was ratified so that fiasco would never, ever happen again.
It is the 12th Amendment’s Electoral College, and not the original Hamilton described in Federalist 68, that we live with today.
The differences are significant. Electors now explicitly cast votes for President and Vice President, not two qualified applicants for the top position. If an absolute majority is not achieved, the House will choose among the top three, not five. And the Senate will choose only between the top two Veep candidates.
There is no explicit acknowledgment of political parties, but those were the facts on the ground (and in the government) for both post-Washington elections. Nor was there any pretense, post-Washington, that Electors were independently minded delegates — you voted for an Elector as a declared stand-in for your Presidential choice.
And you voted for all your state’s Electors at once.
Which is why the Electoral College is now a predominantly winner-take-all system by state, with no independent judgment in practice. It was not designed or intended to work that way, but with the exception of Washington’s two terms, it has never worked that way. The Electoral College is an appendix on the Body Politic.
It’s also, in practice — especially lately — a subversion of the popular will.
The chief claim supporting the Electoral College’s continued existence is that it protects the interests of small rural states against large urban states.
This is demonstrably false.
The allocation of Electoral College votes is indeed slightly weighted in favor of small states — every state gets a vote for each Senator — but with winner-take-all voting, Presidential candidates are compelled to spend most of their time in “battleground” states, whatever the population. Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania are not small states, and get far more attention than, say, Oregon or Washington, never mind California or Texas.
Same goes for the rural/urban divide. A farmer in upstate New York or central California receives far less attention than an urbanite in Ohio or Minnesota, because a vote in close states is worth far more than in a state that is predominantly Blue or Red.
In our 57 years walking this Earth, living in Oregon, California, and now Colorado, only in one Presidential election have we been treated to any significant attention — and only barely this year, because Colorado is rapidly evolving from Purple to Blue.
The only reason the Electoral College continues to exist, despite its original deliberative purpose having been thwarted the very first time there was an actual contest, is that it hasn’t failed frequently enough — or evenly enough — for there to be sufficient support to abolish it.
Trust us, if it was Hillary Clinton who won the Electoral College eleven days ago, and Donald Trump who was now leading the count by 1.6 million votes, you wouldn’t be hearing the end of it.