A More Perfect Union: Celebrating the Constitution in an Election Year
by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian & College Archivist
On September 17, 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention approved and signed the document they had worked on all summer in Philadelphia. The Convention was convened because our original system of government established under the Articles of Confederation simply did not work. The Constitution is relatively short, but it is a complex document. Due to what is hopefully an obvious reason, this year we’re going to focus is on one particular part of the Constitution: Article II Section 1. For those who don’t read blog posts with their personal copy of the Constitution handy, Article II established the executive branch. Section 1 is almost entirely about how the president and vice president are selected. That’s right – it’s election year!
2016 is the 58th US presidential election. Ours is an indirect election: registered voters cast ballots for members of the electoral college. The electors then cast direct votes for the President and Vice President. The candidate who then receives an absolute majority wins the office. If there is no majority, then the House of Representatives decides. It’s been this way since 1804, when the 12th amendment was ratified, changing Article II, Section 1, Clause 3, of the Constitution. Originally, each elector was allowed two votes, and whichever candidate received the most votes became the president, and the runner up became vice president. Electors didn’t specify president or vice president with their votes. This meant that running mates were not guaranteed to be elected and, in fact, were not.
The first contested presidential election (George Washington ran unopposed) was in 1796, when John Adams, a Federalist, was elected President and Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, was elected Vice President. Adams’s running mate was Thomas Pickney from South Carolina. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as the Democratic-Republican Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate respectively, but they tied with 73 electoral votes each. The election was sent to the House for a tie-breaking decision as to who would be President. Unfortunately, the House had a Federalist majority and they really didn’t like Jefferson. The House gridlocked, casting 19 identical tie ballots. Finally, the delegates from Vermont and Maryland abstained from the vote, and Jefferson was elected. The 12th amendment was proposed December 9, 1803 and ratified by 3/4th of the states in September 1804. The amendment changed the process, stipulating that electors must cast distinct votes for President and Vice President. Starting in 1804, each presidential election has been conducted under the 12th amendment. However, that does not mean it’s been smooth sailing since then. CNN has a list of the top 10 most bizarre elections in US history – check it out and see if you agree and how you think this year’s election will measure up. To see election results complete with interactive maps, go to the website 270towin. To get state by state statistics for past elections, go to the US Election Atlas.
To celebrate our constitution and our right to vote, there is a display in the library lobby of select materials from the Fred Parks Law Library Collection on the Constitution, the electoral college, and the history of Presidential elections. “A More Perfect Union” will be on display until December 1, 2016