Election system is ever changing

The founders would hardly recognize our durable two-party system, universal suffrage and the powerful influence of television.

September 03, 2000|By Mark Ribbing

THIS YEAR'S presidential election will be the 54th in the nation's history. From the time of the first election in 1789, when a reluctant George Washington was unanimously chosen by a small group of electors to be the chief executive of the new United States, the process of selecting a president has changed enormously.

The 2000 election reflects that change in ways large and small. Even the most basic realities of the present campaign -- such as the bruising and highly public nomination process, the overriding importance of television, the nonstop fund raising -- would likely have been either unimaginable or downright appalling to Washington and his contemporaries.

How did we get here? It's pretty simple: Our methods of choosing a president have changed because our society has changed. As our culture has become more open, more inclusive, more media-saturated and more cynical, we have placed new demands on those who would lead us.

"The most important change is simply that it has become a much more democratic process," said presidential historian Richard Shenkman. "You have this process where the masses are slowly being brought into the election. As they're let in, politicians decide that they more and more have to cater and pander and do what they have to do to attract votes."

This, in turn, has altered the nature of the presidency and even the traits of the men (alas, the male monopoly on the presidency is one thing that hasn't changed) who occupy the office.

The earliest presidential elections were exclusive affairs, with the pool of voters consisting of white males, mainly property holders. Despite having just waged a war in the name of liberty and political equality, our founders were not quick to extend suffrage to propertyless white men, let alone to nonwhites or women.

This exclusivity fit the political temper of the times. The founders wanted the president to be chosen not by the general public, but by what John Jay called "the most enlightened and respectable citizens," who could make their selection without regard to the state of origin or political party of the candidates.

In those years, the nation's elite generally viewed enlightenment and respectability as beyond the reach of females, people of non-European ancestry and the lower economic classes. Public campaigns for the presidency were seen as both unseemly and unnecessary.

The Constitution provided for an Electoral College that would select the president. The runner-up in the presidential election was to be named vice president, regardless of party affiliation.

In most states the members of the Electoral College were not chosen by a general vote. Such matters were generally entrusted to state legislatures. Maryland was one of only a handful of states that picked electors through a direct vote of the people.

This courtly state of affairs remained in place as long as the presidency was in the hands of George Washington, who was almost universally admired. However, his fellow founders were divided on several important issues facing the new country, such as financial policy, states' rights and foreign affairs. No other individual could inspire the near-unanimous esteem that Washington had enjoyed.

So, the battle lines formed. In 1796, Washington's vice president, John Adams, ran successfully as the Federalist Party's candidate against Washington's secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party (the precursor to today's Democratic Party). The election of the president became an openly partisan contest for the first time.

For all the founders' weeping and gnashing about the perils of partisanship, the development of political parties had positive consequences. Over time, it gave presidential candidates both the incentive and the means to seek mass support and bring more Americans into the political process.

In the early 19th century, those new voters were still exclusively male and overwhelmingly white. In national elections -- as in virtually all other phases of society -- women, African-Americans and Native Americans were effectively shut out of power.

No one em- bodied this volatile mix of democracy and oppression better than Andrew Jackson, the winner of the 1828 and 1832 elections. During his tenure in the White House, the former Indian fighter oversaw the brutal removal of eastern Native American tribes to territories west of the Mississippi River. He was also a staunch supporter of southern slavery.

Yet it was Jackson, the hot-tempered hero of the War of 1812, who brought about a populist new age in presidential politics, an age in which people of common means first gained a degree of power over who would lead the country. Along with Martin Van Buren, his vice president, Jackson made the party system far more inclusive than ever before.

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