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The Rise, Demise, and Potential Restoration of the Jeffersonian Electoral College

by Edward B. Foley

Pub Date: Jan. 2nd, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-19-006015-2
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

The Electoral College works, most of the time—but that’s not good enough.

Foley (Chair, Constitutional Law/Ohio State Univ.; Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States, 2016) offers a brief history of the Electoral College, a description of how it’s supposed to work, an analysis of its occasional failures to select the majority candidate, and suggestions about how to prevent breakdowns. In a text sometimes dense with detail, featuring numerous tables and charts, the author reminds us of several important points about the Electoral College: It was designed for a two-party system; the Founders wanted majority rule; the original (and somewhat hasty) 1787 conception was replaced with the 12th Amendment in 1803, an amendment that we still employ. Along the way, Foley provides information that will probably surprise some readers. For example, it was during the time of Andrew Jackson that we began moving toward a winner-take-all approach, even for candidates who received only a plurality, not a majority, of votes. In 1860, Lincoln received only about 40% of the popular vote—and “zero popular votes” in nine states in the South. Nonetheless, the process worked fairly well in the 20th century, with a couple of notable exceptions: the elections of 1992 (Clinton v. Bush) and 2000 (Bush v. Gore). In the latter case, writes the author, the system totally failed. In 2016, the result probably did not reflect the majority. Foley notes that most Americans want the majority candidate to win; to make that more certain, he suggests that states institute methods to ensure it. Among his ideas is what he calls “the majority-rule requirement”—voters, for example, could rank-order their choices (in a multicandidate race), thus ensuring an eventual majority winner.

Learned and tightly focused—but also a demanding text requiring keen attention and an open mind.