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This Day in History: America's first presidential election

On this day in 1789, the first presidential electors are selected. Just a few weeks later, the Electoral College would elect George Washington as the nation’s first President.

Perhaps you know that Washington’s election was unanimous, but do you know about the unusual decisions made by state legislatures that year?

The states engaged in independent decision-making that seems strange to modern Americans. The founding generation, however, knew that it was all part and parcel of the new Constitution they’d just adopted.

Hmm. Perhaps the differing perspectives provide food for thought?

Back then, Americans understood that each state is ultimately in charge of itself at election time. It can select its electors in any way that it chooses (assuming it complies with other constitutional provisions). By and large, it doesn’t have to defer to the federal government, other states, or any other national entity.

Naturally, then, the states approached the 1789 election with a variety of ideas.

Several state legislatures decided to appoint their presidential electors, directly. In Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, and South Carolina, state legislators acted on their own: There was no election among the people for President.

Others disagreed with this approach. In five states, citizens had an opportunity to vote. Yet none of these elections would be recognizable to modern-day Americans.

Today, as you know, most states award their presidential electors on a winner-take-all basis. In 2016, for example, 61 percent of Californians cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. Thus, 55 Democrats were appointed to represent California in the Electoral College: They all voted for Clinton. Most states follow a similar procedure.

In 1789, there was no such uniformity among states.

One state, Virginia, decided to create special districts for electors. In each district, voters could choose one person to serve as presidential elector, much as they might elect a Congressman in their congressional district.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts was more restrained. Voters could cast ballots, but they were effectively coming up with a short list of potential electors. The state legislature then chose the final slate.

For its part, New Hampshire’s legislature provided for an election by a majority popular vote, but it also added legislative selection as a back-up procedure in the event that no choice was made.

Finally, Maryland and Pennsylvania provided for the election of electors on a general ticket, but Maryland directed that five electors were to be residents from the Western Shore and three were to be from the Eastern Shore.

Of all the states, perhaps New York’s election most clearly demonstrates the differences between the country’s first elections and modern elections.

New York did not cast a vote in 1789. Why? Its legislature couldn’t decide how to proceed. No one swooped in from the federal government to save the state. Back then, voters understood that New York’s presidential election was a matter for New York voters to resolve. The other states had no right to interfere.

New York ultimately took care of itself, of course. That was the last time that New York ever lost its vote.

Modern Americans have lost this sense of state independence and responsibility. Instead, we increasingly defer to nationalized forces. Have you noticed that the further we stray from the Founders’ design, the more divided and angry we become?

Perhaps that’s no coincidence.

More information can be found in my book, The Indispensable Electoral College:


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