Remember the First Time
As we set off to elect a new president, I offer a quick reminder of how strange (by today’s standards) was the first presidential election in 1788.
— There were no political parties.
— There was only one candidate for president, George Washington.
— Of the thirteen original states, North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, so they did not participate in the election.
— New York, paralyzed by the tribal factionalism among the Livingstons, Schuylers, and Clintons that characterized its politics in the Early Republic, also did not manage to participate in the election.
— In four states, the presidential electors were chosen by the state legislatures, so ordinary citizens never had a chance to vote on the president (Connecticut, New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina).
— In Massachusetts, the state legislature chose two electors on a statewide basis, then chose one for each congressional district from the two highest vote-getters in each district.
— Even in states that allowed the voters to choose electors directly, property qualifications dramatically reduced the number of people who could vote.
— In the ten states participating in the election, Washington won all 69 electoral votes cast for president, but his runner-up (and vice president) John Adams won only 34 votes.
Imagine how weird our system would seem to the Americans of 1788.
— A two-year political campaign.
— With the unwashed and uninformed casting exactly the same vote as the well-informed and wealthy.
— Two entrenched political parties that outlive the candidates and fight each other bitterly, yet agree on far more than they disagree on.
— Presidential electors who are unknown to the voters who select them, who are committed to vote for specific candidates for president and vice-president.
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