When Hillary Clinton, running as the first female presidential candidate of a major political party, won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the glass ceiling preventing women from reaching the White House’s Oval Office trembled but didn’t break. Her candidacy was the most successful to date by a woman, perhaps partly because that glass ceiling was already strewn with fissures from more than 200 other women who, according to Smithsonian.com, had sought the presidency at one time or another. The first woman to actively pursue the country’s highest office was Victoria Woodhull—a stockbroker, newspaper publisher, and champion of social reform who ran for the presidency in 1872, some 50 years before women throughout the United States had achieved the right to vote.
Woodhull made known her intention to seek the presidency in a letter to the New York Herald on April 2, 1870:
While others sought to show that there was no valid reason why woman should be treated socially and politically as a being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed. I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised women of the country…I now announce myself as a candidate for the Presidency. I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd to-day will assume a serious aspect to-morrow.
Woodhull was an outsider candidate in more than a few ways. Not only was she a female candidate at a time when women could not vote, but also, at age 31, when she wrote to the Herald, she was four years too young to serve as president, according to the requirements of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, while she was supported by some of her fellow suffragettes, the mainstream, mostly middle-class advocates of women’s suffrage, notably Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, carefully distanced themselves from Woodhull, whom they considered an eccentric at best. At worst they saw her as an uncouth libertine loony whose advocacy of free love and interest in spiritualism could damage their movement.
But if free love connoted loose morals to many people, for Woodhull it meant the freedom to love and marry the person one chose and the right to divorce. The Equal Rights Party, which nominated Woodhull as its presidential candidate on May 10, 1872, at Apollo Hall in New York City, championed, among other things, women’s right to a fair wage, shorter workdays for all workers, and civil rights for African Americans (selecting renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass as Woodhull’s running mate, though he chose not to respond to the invitation). Ultimately, however, it was Woodhull’s statements about free love that were glommed onto by newspapers, undermining her candidacy.
Woodhull’s name did not appear on any ballots, and an absence of records has left no evidence of how many votes she received. Her decidedly insurgent candidacy, though, helped break ground for the women who would run for president after her, from the pre-suffrage candidacy of Belva Ann Lockwood in 1884 and 1888 to the candidacies of Margaret Chase Smith, who at the 1964 Republican convention became the first woman to have her named entered into nomination at a major party’s convention, Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first African American woman to run for the nomination of a major political party as its candidate for president, and Pat Schroeder, who briefly pursued the 1988 Democratic nomination. The latter, when asked how she was able to be both a mother and a member of Congress, replied “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.”
Political parties are always looking for endorsements from community leaders and other influencers. Having support from prominent figures can make or break a candidate or party. It’s no surprise that sometimes political groups will also try to claim affiliation with historical figures of note. One favorite subject is civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.—which party did he support?
The official answer is neither. King talked very infrequently about his personal politics and was not formally affiliated with either political party. Nor did he explicitly endorse any candidate. In fact, he stated, “I don’t think the Republican Party is a party full of the almighty God, nor is the Democratic Party. They both have weaknesses. And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.” What’s more, the parties of King’s time were different from the parties we know today; policies and platforms have changed drastically over time. According to King biographer David J. Garrow, King was fond of some Republican politicians, such as Richard Nixon, although it is almost certain that King voted for Democrats John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Among the few times he ventured into open partisanship was to denounce Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who, as a senator, had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King said in an interview, “I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.” Although King supported Johnson’s presidential campaign, he later spoke out about his dissatisfaction with Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War.
That King was often tight-lipped about his personal politics does not mean that he was not passionate about politics generally. His commitment to social and economic justice for African Americans defined his career, and he frequently expressed skepticism toward capitalism generally. He famously said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” King was intensely invested in expanding votership among African Americans, heading a group in the late 1950s that aimed to register new African American voters in the South. So, if you want to closely align your political practice with that of King, perhaps the best way would be registering to vote and ensuring that others have the right to do the same.
For decades, federal elections in the United States have been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Why this date?
Originally, election days varied by state, but in 1845 a law was passed to set a single election day for the entire country. (At first, it applied only to presidential elections, but it was later extended to congressional elections as well.) At that time, the United States was still a largely agrarian society. For farmers, who made up a majority of the labor force, much of the year was taken up by the planting, tending, and harvesting of crops. Early November was a good time to vote because the harvest was over but the weather was still relatively mild.
Still, some days of the week were better than others. Two days were definitely out of the question. Most Americans were devout Christians and thus set aside Sunday as a day of rest and worship. Wednesday in many areas was a market day, when farmers sold their crops in town. In addition, a travel day was sometimes required. In rural areas, the nearest polling place might have been several miles away, and, in an era before automobiles, getting there could take a while. If people couldn’t use Sunday or Wednesday as their travel day, then that meant election day couldn’t be on Monday or Thursday, either. And so Tuesday was perceived as the best option.
The reason that election day was specified as the Tuesday “after the first Monday” was to prevent it from falling on November 1. That day was considered unfavorable because some Christians observed it as All Saints’ Day and also because merchants typically took the first day of the month to settle their books for the previous month.
Although Tuesday was chosen as a matter of convenience, voting on that day is now more commonly seen as a hindrance. Less than 2 percent of Americans today are employed in agriculture, and many people work on Tuesdays throughout the year. As voter turnout rates declined over time, some people proposed that elections be moved to the weekend. Others suggested keeping election day on Tuesday but making it a federal holiday. While those particular efforts have not been successful, increased opportunities to vote early and by mail have had the effect of making election day less central to the voting experience than it once was.
How Does the Electoral College Work?
American voters go to the polls on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, but the ballots that they cast do not directly elect the president. Instead, the will of the voters is reflected in the actions of state electors. These electors are selected by political parties at the state level and in many cases are bound by law to vote in a way that is consistent with the results of the popular vote. In 48 states, electoral votes are apportioned on a winner-takes-all basis, while Maine and Nebraska allocate electoral votes by congressional district, with two additional votes reserved for the statewide winner.
It is important to note that the electoral college is not a place but a process. After the November election, each state’s governor (or, in the case of the District of Columbia, the city’s mayor) submits a Certificate of Ascertainment to Congress and the National Archives, listing the names of the electors for each party, the total votes received by those parties, and the names of those who have been appointed to serve as state electors. On the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December, those electors meet—typically in the capitals of their respective states—to cast their ballots. Since the establishment of the electoral college system in 1789, there have been more than 150 “faithless” electors, so called because they did not cast a vote for their party’s chosen candidate. None of these faithless electors has ever altered the outcome of an election. On January 6 of the year following the election, a joint session of Congress is convened to tally and certify the electoral votes. If a presidential candidate has received 270 or more electoral votes, the sitting vice president, acting as president of the Senate, then declares that person to be the president-elect, thus concluding the electoral college process. If no candidate wins at least 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives, choosing from among the top three electoral college finishers, elects the president by simple majority vote.
Although the electoral college result has typically been in alignment with the national popular vote, there have been some very notable outliers. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016) each won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. (In the latter case, Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more popular votes than Trump.). While the recent examples have led to a widespread questioning of the continued relevance of the electoral college, its abolition in favor of a nationwide popular vote would require a constitutional amendment—a fairly monumental undertaking.
What Is Gerrymandering?
In the United States, representatives to state assemblies and the U.S. House of Representatives are determined by the voters within voting districts in each state. Unlike the boundaries between individual U.S. states, voting district boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to coincide with the U.S. Census. All districts within the state must have populations that are roughly equal to one another. Every time the districts are redrawn, gerrymandering becomes a popular topic in the media. But what is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering, in U.S. politics, is the drawing of the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals. In other words, gerrymandering can be used by office holders of the party in power to either spread voters from the opposing party across districts or to give a competitive edge to their own candidates. Alternatively, voters from the opposing party can be packed into a minority of voting districts to reduce the number of seats the opposing party can control. Gerrymandering has been condemned because it violates two basic tenets of electoral apportionment—compactness and equality of size of constituencies. The term is derived from the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, whose administration enacted a law in 1812 defining new state senatorial districts. The law consolidated the Federalist Party vote in a few districts and thus gave disproportionate representation to Democratic-Republicans.
Many of the seats won at the national and state levels during the 2016 election were the result of at least some level of gerrymandering by both Democrats and Republicans. The most famous example concerns two districts in North Carolina (District 1 and District 12) which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled were unconstitutionally drawn along racial lines to increase the populations of African American majorities, effectively packing these voters into fewer districts. Another example involved a case in which a U.S. District Court determined that a map showing the state assembly voting districts of Wisconsin was unconstitutional because it was clearly drawn to benefit Republican candidates.
Several solutions have been devised to reduce the influence of gerrymandering. At a town hall meeting in Plymouth, Michigan, in March 2017, it was suggested that state officials should build replicas of voting districts with LEGO bricks to address the issue of compactness. If these constructions fell apart when they were held up for view, one could argue that the district’s gerrymandering was too extreme. In addition, compactness could be examined using mathematics and spatial analysis to determine the average distances between points of interest, such as urban centers or between the centers of voting districts and their edges. Another radical approach to solving the gerrymandering problem involves the concept of proportional allotment, where each congressional district would elect three to five representatives instead of one. This solution could represent a majority party’s win while preventing a winner-take-all situation, but it would also mean newer and bigger statehouses (and a larger U.S. Capitol building!) to handle the extra seating. Of the more practical solutions, one that shows promise involves shifting the responsibility of redrawing boundaries to independent commissions. Arizona, California, and Idaho already rely on independent commissions to produce voting district maps that are both just and fair.