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12 Electoral college reform

Wednesday, November 27, 2002


Writing hopefully in 1787, Alexander Hamilton observed of the proposed method of selecting a president "[I]f the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent." The founders had decided on an Electoral College, which would choose a president by vote. The runner-up would be vice president. In cases of ties, the contest would go before the House of Representatives to decide. Fourteen years after praising the system, Hamilton was killed in a duel with a former presidential hopeful named Aaron Burr. Long-standing enmity between the two had been deepened by then-New York Congressman Hamilton's refusal to help Burr when a tie in the Electoral College threw the presidential race into the House of Representatives. The decision gave the presidency to Burr's running mate, Thomas Jefferson.

With an eye toward the 1804 election, Jefferson's supporters pushed through an amendment to refine the workings of the Electoral College to create separate ballots for president and vice president.

Today, each state sends electors equal in number to its members in the House and Senate, to cast the official and constitutionally binding ballots for president. In Pennsylvania, electors are selected by state leaders and vote, by tradition unanimously, for the candidate who won the state's popular vote. If no candidate emerges from the Electoral College with a majority of votes, then the House of Representatives chooses the president and the Senate selects the vice president. Among electors in 2000 was House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Greene County. Behind him stands a statue of a predecessor in the Electoral College, Pittsburgh native George T. Oliver, an elector for Pennsylvania in the 1884 elections.

Amendment XII: The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;--The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;--the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

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