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Defending the Electoral College and the Constitution since 2009

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Abraham Lincoln and the Electoral College
Trent England • Feb 12, 2022

Today is the birthday of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. In four ways, Lincoln’s presidency and legacy reveals the importance of the Electoral College.

First, Lincoln won the Republican nomination in part because he had proven he could win the swing state of Illinois. Just two years earlier, Lincoln had lost the U.S. Senate election in Illinois to Stephen A. Douglas. Yet he had won the most popular votes—really, the Republican Party’s state legislative candidates had received more popular votes even though they did not win control of the state legislature. This was before the 17th Amendment, when state legislatures chose U.S. Senators. (Today, with Senators unaccountable to state governments, most states hire lobbyists to represent their interests to Congress.)

Second, when the Democratic Party fractured over the issue of slavery, they severely reduced their chances to win the presidential election. It is nearly impossible for a regional party to win the Electoral College—one of the great benefits of the constitutional system.

Third, when Lincoln did win, the Electoral College bolstered his legitimacy. Even though Lincoln received just shy of 40% of the vote, he won fully half the states (16 of 32; in all but 2 he had clear majorities). These including the three largest states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. This gave him nearly 60% of the electoral votes—a clear victory.

Fourth, after Lincoln’s death and the end of the War, it remained uncertain that the nation could bind up its wounds. One thing nudging the country together was the Electoral College. The Democrats needed a national coalition to have any hope of winning the White House. They would gradually incorporate northern voters who were left out of the Republican coalition. This had two important effects: encouraging greater civic participation and reestablishing diversity within the Democrats’ coalition.

Finally, I would be remiss to write about Lincoln without giving credit to the late Harry Jaffa. Conversations with him, and his lectures and books, were instrumental to my understanding of Lincoln and especially to my awareness of the first point above. Of course, the very best resource on Lincoln are his own writings—this is my favorite single volume.