Election Selections & the Odd Events Surrounding US Politics

The History of the Electoral College & Concession Speeches

Ellie O’Sullivan and Kate Loughran

The election process is not a simple one,  but it only gets more involved when there are ties, complications, and other confusions. Much of this uncertainty stems from the Electoral College. There have been five United States presidential elections in which the successful presidential candidate, the winner of the Electoral College, did not receive a plurality of the popular vote, and two of those elections have taken place within the last twenty years. Today, as President Trump and his legal team make last-ditch maneuvers to throw votes out of court or convince state legislatures to change the slate of electors they will send to cast the final, decisive vote,  many Americans question the importance of the Electoral College, the system that was put in place by the country’s Founding Fathers. With the Electoral College meeting on December 14, some wonder why it exists at all. This, coupled with the possibility that Trump may not ever officially concede the election, has shined a spotlight on our process of selecting a Commander-in-Chief.

Established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is a formal body which selects the president and vice president of the United States. At the time of the constitution’s creation, the founding fathers sought to form a balance between the common people’s vote and the vote of those in the elite class. Even at the time the Constitution was created, many felt that the formation of the Electoral College did not fall in line with the democratic principles upon which the country was founded.

One argument in favor of the Electoral College is the fact that the system allows for all parts of the country to be represented. If not for the Electoral College, candidates could limit their campaigning to largely populated cities. In order to win the election with the Electoral College, candidates must receive the votes from a cross-section of regions, even those that are sparsely populated, therefore providing more representation for the people, and increased campaigning in rural areas. This argument over the importance of the electoral college still continues today, and is bound to resurface as the voting of the electoral college approaches. 

As each state certifies their votes, the electoral college confirms which candidate they will give their votes to. There are some states where the winner takes all, but others, like Nebraska and Maine, dole out their electoral votes in a different way, via the ‘congressional district method’. In this method, the electors from some parts of a state may go to one candidate while a different electors go to the other. It is this inconsistency that further cause some to see the Electoral College as less than perfect, questioning why there is not a uniform procedure for assigning electors. So, the Electoral College process itself is flawed. But so is the idea that a candidate must publicly concede their loss to insure a peaceful transition of power.

There have been a total of 45 seated presidents in American history, but only 32 concession speeches were given, so the idea that if President Trump does not concede the results are somehow not “final.”  According to NPR, the act of the concession speech only really became customary in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan sent a “congratulatory telegram” to William McKinley a few days after the election. Since then, it’s become a commonality for the losers of the presidential election to acknowledge their defeat. There have, of course, been blips and confusion throughout the years; the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush being a notable anomaly.

Gore became one of, if not the only, presidential candidate in history to concede only to retract his concession. Similar to today’s dilemma, there were some questions and confusion as to the legitimacy of how some states would swing: Florida was called to be blue, but later flipped, etc. As the date of the Electoral College convention came dangerously closer without a resolution, a decision had to be made about how long the recount process could go on for. The case ultimately went before the Supreme Court, and the matter was settled in the favor of Bush. The peaceful transfer of power went smoothly … except for the Clinton staff removing the w’s from the White House keyboards!

Going back even farther, during the transfer of power from Federalists to Democratic-Republicans, John Adams left town and did not attend the inauguration of Jefferson. Although it’s encouraged, making a graceful and polite exit from the White House is not mandatory. There is no written law saying that a losing candidate needs to concede, for as long as the votes are certified, democracy will run its course.

From establishments over 200 years old to constitutional amendments made as recently as 1992, this nation was built on the ideals and beliefs of the Founding Fathers and they have held strong. From time to time systems may be reformed but the notion still stands that, while it may not seem like it, the U.S. is called ‘united’ for a reason. Whether it be through systems such as the electoral college, the process of transitioning power, or just the acknowledgement of defeat from one side to another.