Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2016



A History of the Election Process
October 13, 2016



The Bridgeville Area Historical Society kicked off its 2016/2017 program season with a presentation on the evolution of the election process in our country, by Todd DePastino. Mr. DePastino’s annual appearance in their series is always a treat – this specific illustrated talk was not an exception. It seemed particularly relevant this year.

The speaker began by reminding the audience that the U. S. Constitution contains very few specific requirements regarding the popular election of our officials. The members of the House of Representatives were the only ones initially chosen by the voters, Until 1913 U. S. Senators were selected by the State Legislatures.

Initially the Legislatures also selected members of the Electoral College, who then decided who should be elected President and Vice President. Early in our country’s life it became customary for the electors to be chosen by popular vote, then confirmed by the Legislatures.

Eligibility to vote was quite limited in the early years. In the original thirteen states the privilege was restricted to white male property owners. One reference indicates that this limited suffrage to about fifteen percent of the free adult population. Andrew Jackson is credited with expanding the voting base to include the common man by eliminating property and taxpaying requirements. Jackson also advocated direct election of U. S. Supreme Court Justices.

It was interesting to learn that New Jersey originally allowed women and African-Americans to vote, a privilege that was removed in 1807.

Mr. DePastino interposed an interesting story about the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island in 1841. Rhode Island was a reluctant member of the original thirteen states, choosing to continue to operate under its Royal Charter granted in 1663, which limited suffrage to landowners and their eldest sons. Attorney Thomas Dorr attempted to overthrow the existing state government by rebelling, unsuccessfully.

Dorr was defeated, arrested, convicted of treason, and incarcerated. Nonetheless in 1843 Rhode Island commuted his sentence and adopted a new constitution which extended voting rights to all native-born adult males (including African-Americans), but imposed onerous residence and property requirements on immigrants.

The speaker discussed the seemingly non-normal practice of selecting the President by the vote of Electors, rather than by popular vote. He cited the four examples where a candidate with fewer popular votes than his rival was elected – John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in 1924; Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden in 1876; Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888; and George W. Bush over Albert A. Gore, Jr. in 2000.

The power small states have because of their apparent over-representation in the U. S. Senate and the Electoral College is a consequence of a compromise effected during the Constitutional Convention, an effort to provide them with some leverage in return for their agreement to join the Union.

Mr. DePastino cited the 1840 election as the first one that was truly political, in today’s context. Sitting President Martin van Buren, Jackson’s chosen successor, was opposed by Whig Party candidate William Henry Harrison. The Whig Party had been founded in opposition to Jackson’s philosophy of constitutional conventions and majority rule, espousing instead the rule of law, unchanging constitutions, and protection for minority interests against majority tyranny.

This election reached a new peak in negative campaigning. Van Buren was vilified for his Dutch accent, his alleged profligate expenditures while President, and for the Panic of 1837. Harrison was characterized as a crude frontiersman, drinking hard cider in a log cabin. The Whigs capitalized on this characterization and ran him as the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate, appealing to the common man. His exaggerated war record (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too) added to his attractiveness to John Q. Public.

The excitement of this campaign produced the highest percentage of voter participation to date – 80.2% (compared to 57.8% four years earlier), a figure exceeded only by the 1876 election (81.8%). For reference, the comparable turnout percentage in the 2012 election was 54.87%. It is interesting that the same data source reports that nearly sixty nine million votes were counted in 1960 although only sixty five million voters were registered that year.

Harrison, of course, died after thirty days in office, to be succeeded by John Tyler. Although Tyler did little in his presidency to generate a legacy, Mr. DePastino interjected some trivia which we found interesting. Tyler was born in 1790; two of his grandsons are still alive! His legacy is large families and procreation at advanced ages.

Our current practice of secret balloting wasn’t introduced until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The founding fathers believed that restricting the vote to property owners would automatically produce votes that were for the benefit of the general public; consequently there was no necessity to keep them private. Votes were made orally and announced to everyone within earshot.

During Jackson’s regime paper ballots were produced, but still were filled out in the presence of outsiders. This practice eventually led to corruption and intimidation. In 1880 the election caused over one thousand murders in Louisiana alone. At about this time Henry George returned from a trip to Australia impressed with their use of secret ballots and was influential enough to persuade most of the states to adopt that practice here, beginning with Massachusetts in 1888.

It was indeed fascinating to hear an expert trace the evolution of our voting system and contrast its current version with the practices two centuries ago. Apparently some of the characteristics of this year’s Presidential campaign aren’t as unique as they seem to us today. One sometimes wishes we had a “No confidence” alternative that would void the election if enough voters chose it, requiring the parties to try again, with different candidates.

The next Historical Society program meeting is scheduled for 7:30 pm, Tuesday, October 26, 2016, in the Chartiers Room at the Bridgeville Volunteer Department. The speaker will be Kathryn Miller Haines, Associate Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music; her subject is “Stephen Foster and the Making of a Memorial”. As always the public is cordially invited.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

Previous Articles

This template downloaded form free website templates