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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The League of Women Voters is on Fire

If you read this on Friday, it will be only a few hours after our local League of Women Voters has held a program on gun violence. If you missed it, you get a chance to redeem yourself with another event on an important, if generally unnoticed issue, the national popular vote. Put it on your calendar: Wednesday, February 20, at 5:30. It’s at the Children’s Board headquarters, which is at 1002 Palm Avenue in Ybor City. And yes, plenty of safe parking is available there, and yes, men are welcome to join the League. The speaker will be a national expert, and I expect to learn something.

How We Elect the President

On and off for decades, I taught American history at both the high school and university level. Every time a class got to the era after the Civil War, I made a prediction -- and students solemnly nodded their heads in agreement with what I said. I turned out to be totally wrong, and this is my confession. Along with that, I also want to sing the praises of a man who should be better known, and I probably should remind you that this was before women could vote.

Here’s the context: The Republican Party was new, having fielded its first candidate in 1856. It won its first election in 1860, when the Civil War loomed and parties split. Republican Abraham Lincoln garnered more votes than any other of the four candidates – although not a majority. He won re-election in 1864, but by a narrower margin that many would believe today: he defeated former Union General George McClellan, the Democratic nominee, by approximately 2.2 million votes to 1.8 million. Moreover, because the war was ongoing in November 1864, all of those voters lived in northern states that had not seceded. Although the majority of Democrats then lived in what was known as “the Solid South,” Union states still had a strong remnant of Democrats.

In that 1864 reelection campaign, Lincoln dropped his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, from the ticket in favor of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Johnson was the only US senator from a seceding state who stayed loyal to the Union, but his fellow Republicans from the North never accepted him -- perhaps because of his working-class origins. Some of those same Republicans were not overly fond of Lincoln, either, and after his assassination, they nearly removed Johnson from office. He had absolutely no chance of winning the 1868 election, and with his wife, Eliza -- who had taught Andrew to read-- left the White House when former Union General Ulysses S. Grant moved in.

Again, though, Grant did not win by as many popular votes as we might suppose for this hugely popular warrior: the 1868 margin was about 3.5 million to 2.8 million. He did better in his 1872 reelection, mostly because Democrats nominated Horace Greeley, a former Republican and very liberal newsman from New York who was especially popular in the West. Yes, politics has a long history of strange bedfellows.

An Unsung Hero

Meanwhile most Southern states had been readmitted to the Union, and thus the 1876 election was the first truly competitive race between our modern major parties. Republicans nominated Rutherford Hayes of Ohio, while Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden of New York. Both had been governors of their states and – unlike Grant – were scandal-free. It was a free and fair election, which Tilden clearly won: official records show that he had 4,300,590 votes to Hayes’ 4,036,298. But the Republicans who controlled Congress “investigated” the returns from several states and created a totally unconstitutional commission that awarded the presidency to Hayes, giving him an Electoral College tally of 185 to Tilden’s 184.

Samuel Tilden was indeed a hero. He easily could have restarted the Civil War, and this time it would not be so much a matter of geography as of ideology. The era was the beginning of the Gilded Age and Robber Barons and plutocrats, mostly Republicans, who ripped off government to fatten themselves. Tilden, the Democrat, could have organized workers, farmers, and immigrants to storm the White House that he had won – but he didn’t. One rarely thinks of passivity as heroic, but his choice to quietly accept the wrong done to him was exactly that.

American People, Not State Lines

Then I would say to my students that someday this will happen again, and we’ll get rid of the Electoral College. They agreed with my prediction -- yet now it has happened twice: in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, and again in 2016, when Hillary Clinton did the same. Especially in 2016, the American people clearly made their choice, but both popular-vote winners were deprived of the White House. Including the 1876 election, that’s strike three -- and time for passivity to end. The Electoral College not only is anachronistic, it also is undemocratic. (Yes, my Republican friends, I hear you saying that ours is a republic, not a democracy. Let me ask you to walk down the street and ask people whether or not they think they live in a democracy.)

First, the anachronism. Article II, Section I of the US Constitution outlines the procedure for choosing the president and vice president. It’s complicated – and part of it was repealed after 1800, when Aaron Burr tried to steal the election from Thomas Jefferson. The key sentence, however, is and remains: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…” Those electors are the folks who officially choose the president -- even though nowadays, the ceremonial electors are not chosen until after well after an election is over.

So it’s far past time for revision. We have computers now that can count votes in ways incomprehensible in 1789, but beyond that, the system never was fair, as it inherently makes geography more important than people. Because each state has two senators and at least one representative, each gets a minimum of three electors – so the eight states that have populations smaller than Hillsborough County start out with a head start that is difficult to overcome. I’m not going to do the math on this again, but I did several years ago – and found that a presidential vote cast by someone in Idaho is worth sixteen times more than ours in Florida.

Remember, too, that when the Constitution was adopted, we did not elect our US senators. That changed in 1913, when the 17th Amendment was adopted, allowing voters to decide themselves who would represent them in the US Senate. Prior to that, state legislators elected US senators: in other words, guys in Tallahassee decided which two men would go to Washington -- and you can imagine the disrupting and corrupting effect on state business. That, of course, was after the 15th Amendment, which said nothing about gender but was intended to assure black men of the vote. The greatest expansion of democracy ever was the 19th Amendment, which granted women in every state the right to vote in every election.

Electing the president by popular vote is the logical next step of this gradual expansion of democracy. Yes, the issue is complicated, but you owe it to the future to get involved. The national League of Women Voters has supported some form of obtaining the popular vote for president since 1970 – and we now seem to have that goal in our sights. I hope to see you on the 20th at the Children’s Board. We did that, too, btw: it was largely women – Collen Bevis, Pat Frank, and others -- who pushed for that county tax back in the 1980s. It now benefits the least of us, and things do get better.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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