On this day in 1893, Colorado voters approve a measure giving women the right to vote. Wait? What? Individual states gave women the right to vote even before the Constitution included a similar requirement? The 19th Amendment, addressing this issue, would not be ratified until 1920.
Yes, you read that correctly. States acted on their own, without the federal government. Nor was Colorado alone. In 1892, Wyoming also allowed women to vote. Wyoming and Colorado didn’t wait around for other states to agree; they simply did what they thought was best.
Such independence at the state level used to be fairly normal. Early generations understood that each state is ultimately responsible for itself. It’s an understanding that has gotten lost over time, especially when it comes to our presidential election system.
Have you noticed that, the further we drift from the Founders’ plan, the more divided, upset, and angry our politics seem to become? Perhaps this is no coincidence.
When it comes to presidential elections, the Constitution sets up a decentralized, state-driven process. The Founders deliberately rejected a centralized approach that would put all power in the hands of a single federal entity. Instead, America’s presidential election process diffuses power among 51 different entities—50 states and Congress.
In America, the states bear primary responsibility for presidential elections. The Constitution does not anticipate federal involvement in this process outside of the counting of electoral votes and the congressional duty to “determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes . . . .” When it comes to congressional elections, the Constitution grants Congress slightly more authority to intervene, but the states still bear most of the responsibility.
Such a decentralized process protects presidential elections from being politicized and controlled by an incumbent class of federal officials. A sitting President never appoints the federal bureaucrats in charge of his own re-election. But the decentralized process does even more than protect against abuse of power: It gives states great flexibility to act on behalf of their citizens.
In 1876, for instance, the State of Colorado didn’t hold a presidential election. Its state legislature appointed electors instead. Why? Because it was cheaper and easier. Colorado had just joined the Union, and it was already holding one set of elections for congressmen. Another election was simply too hard and expensive.
States have represented their citizens’ interests in other unique ways, too.
In 1892, some states left Grover Cleveland off the ballot because of a disagreement over fiscal policy. Twenty years later, at least one state reportedly instructed its electors to vote for the candidate with the best chance of defeating Woodrow Wilson! In 1836, Virginia refused to appoint electors for Richard M. Johnson, the Democratic vice presidential candidate. Johnson was living with a slave and Virginians did not approve.
Back then, states didn’t hesitate to make themselves heard. Today, our political scene seems dominated by national, centralized entities such as the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, the Commission on Presidential Debates, or even the mainstream media.
The Founders would surely be surprised that the states have ceded so much of their power—but maybe they’d be less surprised that the trend has generated so much discontent and upset in our political system.
More on the history of state decision-making in the Electoral College can be found in my book, The Indispensable Electoral College.