As our nation waits uneasily for this presidential election to really and truly be psychologically over, we find ourselves wondering if our electoral system, and other institutions we cherish, will hold up, able to overcome misinformation, passionate anger and a sitting president’s accusations of fraud supported by tens of millions of Americans.
It is a tall task, but one that has been accomplished every single election for 231 years. Granted, all but the last few have predated social media which has, on one hand, democratized information, and on the other, has given a teenager with a website in the Ukraine equal opportunity to post absurdities that can be relayed to millions of people around the world, many of whom will take it as truth and see what they want to believe. Scarier than the Ukrainian teenager, to me, are government entities in Russia and China designing complex algorithms to undermine all we thought we knew. Bots are able to detect weaknesses in our societal fabric and send out thousands of false tweets and messages that exploit that weakness.
Is the clunky electoral college, odd among the world’s democracies, up to preserving our republic amid such evolving realities? There have always been misinformation campaigns. Take the vitriolic election of 1800, for example. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. It was arguably to be the first peaceful transfer of government power from one party to another in human history, but it would not be pretty. Insults in partisan newspapers included, but were not limited to, calling the opponent mentally unstable, unfit to govern, out to self-aggrandize loving only himself, wicked without scruples, dictator in embryo, selfish, without principles, working for a foreign power, hypocrisy and fornicating with a slave. (DNA later proved that last one accurate.) But my favorite was when a Federalist insisted that “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced” if Jefferson is president. “And the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.” 2020 is deja vu.
Apparently, the founding fathers, for all their genius in constructing the Constitution, failed to predict the rise of political parties. They imagined electors in the Electoral College, with each elector getting two votes, to be above political selfishness, a sort of nominating committee of several candidates with no one getting a majority. Then the House of Representatives would select the president, with each state getting one vote. They found all of this preferable to a direct popular vote and they thought campaigning was undignified, a dominant ethic until Andrew Jackson some 40 years later.
But in 1800 the electors’ ballots did not distinguish between votes for president and vice president.
So, when Jefferson’s Republican party won the election, he and New York Republican Aaron Burr (who did campaign) both received 73 electoral votes even though all 73 electors wanted Jefferson as president. Burr was not the kind of guy to concede. They literally forgot to have one vote go to a third candidate, and this threw the whole process into the House, controlled by Federalists many of whom were thrilled they could keep Jefferson out of the White House, no matter how unscrupulous Burr was. Only after 36 ballots, well into the month of February, February 1801, did Jefferson-hating Alexander Hamilton (who hated Burr even more) convince the single congressman from Delaware, to abstain, giving Jefferson the presidency. Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel after three more years of libel, slander and scurrilous misinformation.
The House also decided the 1824 election and a commission had to pick the president in 1876 when three states couldn’t agree on vote counts. And we’ve had several elections in which the Electoral College gave a majority to a candidate who only got a plurality of popular votes due to third and fourth party candidates. In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency with 39% of the popular vote and didn’t even appear on southern ballots, that scenario led to civil war.
How about 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt, I think, was just plain bored not being president. After personally shooting 512 big game animals in Africa (he was very proud), he returned to the United States ostensibly outraged that his protege, William Taft, wasn’t protecting the environment enough. He insisted on running despite the Republican establishment standing behind Taft. Not to be deterred, he started a third party, split the Republican vote and put only the second Democrat in the White House since the Civil War, racist Woodrow Wilson. At that point, after being shot in the chest during a speech in Milwaukee and finishing the speech, Roosevelt had become a cult of personality on which future third parties couldn’t build.
Even Bill Clinton never got a majority of the popular vote with Ross Perot siphoning off 20 million popular votes in 1992 and eight million more in 1996 but he never received even one electoral vote. Many of us remember the hanging chad debacle of 2000 when the whole Electoral College came down to a virtual tie in Florida whose governor was the brother of one of the candidates. With recounting still going on, the Supreme Court ruled in mid-December, 5-4, that counting should stop, that George W. Bush was president on straight party lines in reasoning they did not want applied to future elections.
So, anxiousness and tension have accompanied presidential elections into December perhaps a dozen times, mostly recently. But this is the first time a sitting president has refused to accept the results. In that sense, our Electoral College, General Service Administration, Federal Election Commission, state legislatures, federal courts and cybersecurity apparatuses are being challenged as never before. Unless we Americans can believe in our institutions, if not leaders themselves, and believe in common sets of what is factual and what foreign governments are falsely worming into our social media, these divisions can only worsen.