Thursday, May 19, 2016

When Not Voting is More Important than Voting: Election of 1800

In most elections, it is more important to vote for the candidate you want than against the one you do not want. But there was one point in American history, when abstaining from voting for your choice of Vice President was the only way to elect a President of the United States that you wanted. That was the election of 1800, when Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson were tied for President -- and all because the party leaders forgot to tell one of the electors not to vote for Vice President.

The way the constitution was originally set up, the person getting the most votes for president in the electoral college was to be the president, and the one with the second highest number of votes  -- like the first runner up in a beauty pageant -- was to be the Vice President. This made sense to a group of founding fathers who were hoping there would be no political parties, and people would just vote for the man they liked best. Under such a system, for instance, John Adams, if he were not re-elected as president, might still end up being the Vice President of the United States, if he won the second highest number of electoral votes for president.

However, the Federalist Adams was very unpopular in 1800, and both the candidates from the opposing Democratic-Republican Party beat him handily --  and that's how Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson ended up tied for President of the United States.

People who dislike Aaron Burr, including Jefferson and his historical apologists, have accused Burr of campaigning against Jefferson, but in fact, that's not how it happened. It happened because somebody at Party Headquarters forgot to instruct one of the electors to abstain from voting for Burr, the party's choice for Vice President.

In order for Burr to get the VP job, he had to beat Adams, but not have an equal or greater number of votes than Jefferson. Those were the constitutionally ordained facts that held at that time. Though this was set up for individuals voting their conscience, the well accepted way for groups to get around this system was by knowing in advance which of their numbers was to cast one vote less for the VP. And if the Democratic-Republican Party acting in concert wanted to achieve this goal, they had to keep from having every elector who supported the party vote for both men on their ticket.

This is the nature of collective action: as each man voted for the candidates of his choice, each believed he was being loyal to his party. Each one may have thought someone else would abstain from voting for Burr. And then all hell broke loose, because guess what? The Federalists decided they liked the second choice of the Democratic-Republicans better than their first choice. So when the tie breaking votes had to be cast, they set about trying to sway the electors to vote for Burr!

Because of what happened during that election, the constitution was changed, and the vice president, instead of being the second runner-up -- is just a stooge for the president. The amendment in question was a capitulation to the political reality of a two party system.

 Can we break through this year and elect a third party candidate? I support Austin Petersen and hope he will be elected President. But I am not sure, if that happens, whether we may not just end up changing the two major parties to be the Democrats and Libertarians, rather than the Republicans and the Democrats.  Is there any way we can also opt out of having only two parties? Or even having any parties? Could we ever get to the point where each of us just votes for the best person for the job?

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  1. You know I think we need to go back to making the VP determined the way it was back when the Constitution was written. I used to be opposed to going back to basics, but lately it makes more sense. The more we change the Constitution, the more it seems we make things complicated.

    1. Hi, Julia, I am toying with that idea as well. All my life it has been drummed into me that what happened in 1800 was a terrible thing, and that's why the constitution had to be changed. But now I am starting to think that just maybe that is how it was supposed to work!