Monday, March 19, 2007

Did Jefferson Abuse His Authority to Count Himself into the Presidency?

This article by Bruce Ackerman at HNN is very interesting! It asks the question if Jefferson abused his power by counting the votes in the Senate to decide the Election of 1800 - an election which ultimately made him President!

The article mainly discusses the question of Georgia's electoral votes:
Although the Constitution is a famously short document, it devotes an entire sentence to defining a legally valid presidential ballot, requiring electors to “make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government.” Although the Georgians prepared a “list,” nothing identifies Jefferson and Burr as “the Persons voted for.” Indeed, it isn’t even clear that the Georgia document is an electoral vote at all, let alone one that has been “signed” and “certified” as such.
Nevertheless, Jefferson counted it, without giving Congress a chance to consider or overrule his decision. Before condemning him, consider the consequences if he had allowed Congress to intervene. Since there were Federalist majorities in both Houses, Congress would probably have overruled him, opening the door for one of their own candidates to gain the presidency in the House run-off. This result would have been even more shocking, since the Georgia mistake was merely technical, and the state had indeed given their votes to Jefferson and Burr.

The article ends with the thought that this action could provide a dangerous precedent in future elections:
But there is more than history at stake. The Constitution continues to assign the vote-counting job to the sitting vice-president. In 2000, for example, it was Al Gore’s job to preside over the electoral vote count in his hotly-disputed presidential contest with George W. Bush. By the time Gore’s chance came on January 6, 2001, the Supreme Court’s decision in December had reduced the vote-count to an empty ritual. But when the next Electoral College crisis strikes, the Court may not be so interventionist, and it may be up to the President of the Senate, in collaboration with the Congress, to make a final decision on a disputed election. At that point, Thomas Jefferson’s actions of 1801 will serve as a crucial precedent, and we will need all the help that history can give us in muddling our way through yet another constitutional crisis generated by the Founders’ failures in constitutional design.

1 comment:

M said...

I read this article as well and found it interesting. Clearly, Jefferson took some liberties by allowing the Georgia electoral votes to be counted on his behalf. However, this was the intent of the Georgia electors so it was not necessarily immoral.

Imagine if this happened today. Jefferson's opponents would accuse him of stealing the White House, claim he was "not my president," and there would be a billion web sites and blogs up about the stolen election of 1800. :]