In May, I blogged that an LA Times editor had misquoted James Madison, pretending that Madison was opposed to the Electoral College. In the LA Times piece, Madison was taken very badly out of context. Madison’s words were not aimed at the Electoral College; he was writing of his discontent with the back-up election process, the House contingent election.
Now, the anti-Electoral College forces are at it again. This time, they are taking Thomas Jefferson’s words out of context. Thomas Jefferson, it is alleged, called the Electoral College the “ink blot” of the Constitution.
The source of this allegation is a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Hay in 1823. When Electoral College opponents quote this letter, it usually looks something like it does on FairVote’s website:
"I have ever considered the constitutional mode of election…as the most dangerous blot on our constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit."
Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1823
Here’s the problem. Jefferson was not talking about the Electoral College. Just as Madison had, he was instead discussing the House contingent election. His full quote appears below, with the (often omitted) text in bold:
I have ever considered the constitutional mode of election ultimately by the legislature voting by states as the most dangerous blot in our constn, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit, and give us a pope & anti-pope.
The full letter is reprinted here.
The phrase “legislature voting by states” is a reference to the House contingent election. This procedure is a back-up election procedure that is used when no presidential candidate obtains a majority of electoral votes. It’s been used only twice in our nation’s history. Thomas Jefferson was a candidate in one of those two elections. In that election, Jefferson was tied with Aaron Burr, the man who was supposed to be the vice presidential candidate. Burr refused to bow out gracefully, as he should have, and some congressmen tried to take advantage of the situation. The House eventually chose Jefferson, but it took 36 votes before Jefferson obtained a majority of state delegations.
Hmmmm. Given this history, I wonder why Jefferson didn’t like that process so much?
Wonder which Founder will be taken out of context next time.