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A Short Reflection on the Electoral College Effect

Imagine a wintry Washington, DC in 1801. Though Thomas Jefferson from Virginia had won the popular vote in the recent Presidential election when he defeated John Adams from Massachusetts, an odd circumstance occurred. Jefferson received the same number of Electoral College votes as Aaron Burr, a New Yorker.

Before you start thinking Ross Perot or John Anderson, Burr was not running for President as a third-party spoiler. He was running for Vice-President from the same political party as Jefferson. In those days, the Electoral College process did not differentiate between a vote for President and a vote for Vice-President.

The Electoral College tie vote threw the election to the House of Representatives whose members representing 16 states would determine the next President. Jefferson or Burr needed nine states to win. On the 36th ballot, Jefferson finally carried the day and became the third President of these United States. Burr became Vice-President.

Jefferson went on to serve two terms as President during which he, among other things, suppressed the Barbary pirates, doubled the territory of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, sent Lewis and Clark to explore our far new country, stopped the British from boarding our ships on the high seas to kidnap and force our sailors into the British Navy.

Burr went on to serve one term as Vice-President during which as President of Senate, he oversaw the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Chase was acquitted. Jefferson dropped Burr as Vice-President candidate from the next Presidential ticket. This was well before Dan Quayle was born. As his term ended, Burr ran for Governor of New York but was defeated. He then killed the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel regarding a question of personal honor. Burr escaped west to rebuild his fortunes with the French or Spanish only to be charged with treason by Jefferson. Burr was acquitted.

American politics has always been a frontier sport full of power driven people, regional driven plots, foreign intrigue and national reputations made, destroyed and then remade. Like it or not, these are the original political threads woven into the tapestry of our Republic.

Little wonder that the Framers built so many checks and balances into our Constitution. The Electoral College serves as one of those checks on power. It was designed to protect small states with low populations during the Presidential election process. On rare occasions, the Electoral College acts as the Happy Fun Ball of the Constitution, throwing a little chaos and politics into the process, while diffusing power, as it should.