Above: Birney or Bust
Sixteen years earlier, the defense of majority rule was far less urgent. Not unlike those who blame Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s loss in 2000, or Jill Stein for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, Lincoln blamed a third-party candidate, James G. Birney of the Liberty Party, for Henry Clay’s loss in 1844. Many Whigs, including Lincoln, complained that, by voting for Birney, the antislavery Whigs of New York had made their idea of perfect the enemy of good. James K. Polk carried the country by only 38,000 of 2.7 million votes cast. He won New York by only 5,106. If Birney’s 15,814 votes in that state had gone to the Whigs, Lincoln concluded, “Mr. Clay would now be president, Whig principles in the ascendant, and Texas not annexed; whereas by the division, all that either had at stake in the contest, was lost.”
Lincoln’s counterfactual assessment may have been flawed. In reality, it was Clay’s wavering on the Texas question that probably cost him New York. Furthermore, unlike Gore and Clinton, Clay would have lost the national popular vote (albeit narrowly) even if he had won New York, and with it the presidency—a state of affairs that seems not to have concerned Lincoln.
As a member of the House of Representatives in 1848, while maintaining that Congress best understood the popular will, Lincoln conceded that the president “is elected by them [the people], as well as congress is.” Lincoln had been a Whig candidate for presidential elector in Illinois in 1840 and 1844, and would be again in 1852. (Given that Illinois was a solidly Democratic state, he never had a chance to actually cast an electoral vote.) He was certainly aware that the framers of the Constitution had given the power to elect the president to electors chosen by the state legislatures and not to the people. Yet by 1832—sixteen years before Lincoln addressed Congress on the issue—every state but South Carolina provided for the popular election of electors, a development that created the persistent misconception, or illusion, that the American people elect their president.
Today that illusion is beginning to crumble. The Electoral College has defied the will of a plurality of American voters for the second time in only sixteen years. Despite acting as the representative of the nation as a whole, the president is elected on the same basis as Congress, with each state receiving a number of electors equal to the total number of its senators and representatives, and each (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska) holding a separate winner-take-all election to determine its preferred presidential candidate. In any election for a deliberative body (which the founders intended the Electoral College to be), a political party can win more votes overall and yet find itself a minority if the other party wins more seats but by smaller margins. For example, more Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republican candidates in 2016; yet Republicans won 22 out of the 34 seats up for election. Thus the current workings of the Electoral College, with the division of a national election into fifty state elections (plus Washington, D.C.), transfer that potential disparity to the executive branch.
Under Lincoln, democratic government prevailed, with emancipation serving as both a means to that end as well as an end in itself. Over a century and a half later, our new president took his oath on the same Bible Lincoln used and noted that “what truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” This is a laudable sentiment. It would therefore behoove the American people to consider whether our Constitution has allowed minority rule to become too common to be admissible.
Leaving behind the fact that Lincoln was correct about Birney throwing the election to Polk, the Electoral College has always been horrible.