Alexander Hamilton and the first contested election

[previously posted on a now defunct blog – 30 August, 2016]

The compromise rules governing the Electoral College could not even stand up to the first contested election in 1800. The original writing had the candidate with the most Electoral College ballots becoming president; the second place candidate would be vice-president. Those at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention had not even conceived of there being political parties.

Hamilton Letter

In 1800, there was a tie between Jefferson and Burr; and even had there not been, two candidates from different parties would have been president and vice-president. The deadlock in the House in 1800 was broken on the 36th ballot (!), but only after Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton made known his preference for Jefferson, in words that ring eerily salient today: “In a choice of Evils let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

EXCERPT of the letter:
“Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands – No compact, that he should make with any other passion in his own breast except his Ambition, could be relied upon by himself – How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson, I suspect will not dare much; Mr. Burr will dare every thing in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing.”
[Letter to Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts Congressman, from Alexander Hamilton]

Responding to the problems from those first elections, the Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment in 1803—prescribing that electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, and replacing the system outlined in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3. By June 1804, the states had ratified the amendment in time for the 1804 election. However, should there ever be a tie, or if no candidate receives the requisite majority of Electoral Votes, the vote for president will go to the House and Senate, who will vote separately on president and vice-president.

Initially, the Electoral College provisions conceived a set of knowledgeable persons, gentlemanly statesman of the political class who would put nation above self-interest. We have only to look at the 1800 election, where it is clear those involved were motivated more by what would be better for their state and their party than with the concerns of the nation to see how hollow that conception was.

I’m not casting aspersions on those Representatives. The 1800 election was a political struggle, with the clamor and rancor we would recognize today between contending visions of what is best for the nation. But it was hardly statesman-like.

When people defend the Electoral College as a way of putting country over the self-interest of the popular will, they are hearkening to a pre-political time that never existed, or more cynically, they are defending and advocating the ability of a small group to impose their self-interest on the majority. For all the criticism political parties routinely get, they are the only way non-political people (the majority) can have influence. The enduring recession has exposed how easily moneyed interests can manipulate rules at the heart of the Constitution itself.

The novel, Faithless Elector, shines light on the weakness of the system as well as the opportunity for narrow, special interests to exploit that weakness and thwart the will of the majority.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

This post is from a previous (now defunct) blog, originally published 30 August, 2016

Antagonizing

What we get wrong in political thrillers is the same thing we get wrong in real life —

We tend to oversimplify antagonists.

For the protagonist, every writer asks, who is she? what does she want, and why can’t she get it? Part of the writer’s craft is to artfully reveal details that make the main character(s) feel rounded.

But what does the antagonist want–and why?

My recent thriller, Emergency Powers, takes seriously those questions, delves into who the bad guys are–so much so that one reader said he almost began rooting for one of them.

He didn’t think that was a bad thing, and neither do I. You don’t have to agree with- or root for them. But reader and writer should at least understand who the bad guys are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

My thrillers – Faithless Elector, Dark Network and the new Emergency Powers – have been called prescient, seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines (or, rather, anticipating them). One of the reasons is that I looked not only at the driven, conflicted protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager, but at what the bad guys wanted; how they might get it—and what it would take to stop them. If possible.

That impulse forced me to think like them, to consider how they might go about staging a coup. I had to consider which tools were at hand, which key institutions and offices could be undermined, corrupted or hollowed out. And as I worked on the second draft, I stumbled onto things I had written that were really happening. (I should say that I never saw the Jan. 6 capitol riot coming; and even if I had my editor would have axed it as too far-fetched.)

But I did see that a pliant, corrupt Attorney General would be the key to covering up and legitimating a coup; that cabinet positions–even whole departments–could be captured or rendered ineffective through second-in-commands and “acting” heads; that hollowing out the civil service by putting the OPM (Office of Personnel Mgmt) under the ambit of the White House and returning it to a “spoils” system would make a cover-up more complete. And I saw that this state of affairs–a true conspiracy with many moving, coordinated parts–would be hard to stand against, much less defeat. But if anyone could, Imogen would be the one to do it.

Thrillers are meant to be an escape, but not an escape from sense. The gray eminence presiding over the coup (“The Postman”) is concerned with private power, exercised through public means. In the past, he tried to get himself elected, and tried to buy politicians, but his ideas are unpopular and can’t win in the public sphere. Like a lot of frustrated suitors, he thinks it’s because the game is rigged. Well, two can play at that game…

His henchmen are not James Bond automatons, but have real (if misguided) reasons for signing on with the Postman. A great many of us bemoan the level of discourse on social media, but confronting (and considering) some of the ideological rantings there has given me insight into what ideas they hold and what they might be capable of doing.

It makes for a thrilling story–all the more so because much of it could really happen.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Faith among the Faithless

I suppose this is sort of Christmas-y: In my most recent post, “Blunt Tools,” about the obstacles in the way to legitimating a presidential election—Electoral College vote, Congressional certification, potential contingency vote—I found that the word “faith” cropped up again and again: faith in the rule of law, faith in the system(s), faith in our officials, in our democracy. Faith and hope.

Besides being a messy work-in-progress, democracy feels like a spiritual undertaking. Like prayers, where God sometimes answers, No, election outcomes are seldom all that you could have hoped. It’s not the hope that’s spiritual, however. It’s faith in the process, that the result was arrived at fairly; that voting is the best way to achieve our ends, to hold officials accountable.

But it isn’t mere faith that gets us across the ever-moving line. There must be trust in the systems, in people and institutions. Transparency. Faith surmises that tangible evidence doesn’t exist; whereas trust is based largely on evidence that is real according to the senses and to human reason. It’s the institutions, the procedures, and the repetition of sound outcomes (fairly arrived at) that bolsters faith and inculcates trust.

Consider banking, a messy, craven business, ripe for (and often rife with) corruption and collusion. But the teller doesn’t pocket your paycheck, the bank doesn’t steal it. Indeed, banks take steps to ensure that there’s a trail of evidence should something go awry. And they make sure that no one else steals it. (They may snatch at part of it through fees, etc., but that’s a separate discussion.) Your savings are secure, as are your investments, if you’re fortunate enough to have any. I don’t mean to suggest that some mere squishy feeling can bring about the change we want to see all by itself, but without it, we’re lost.

It is trust—repeated, faithful (that word again) repetition of processes and procedures combined with legitimate outcomes. Say what you will about the Electoral College (and I’ve said and written plenty); say what you will about the conduct and byzantine rules within banks (see my example above), but at their most basic, they are open, verifiable activities.

Given the multiple lawsuits and demonstrations—distinct from required/permitted challenges and recounts—I can only surmise that Trump and his enablers have a different aim: to erode trust by striking at our faith in democracy, by tarring institutions and officials with their own foul brush. They certainly have no love for democracy, which at its core is an act of faith that self-governance is the optimal system. The Big Lie works, breeds doubt, will give people pause. The Big Lie in this case is that the vote was stolen. And that lie lingers, festers, strikes at faith.

A recent WA Post editorial points out that, for weeks, Republicans and “Donald Trump [have] told the public that the presidential election was riddled with fraud. And now, in an immaculate act of self-confirmation, Republicans are pointing to the public’s doubts about the election as evidence that something fraudulent must have taken place…” The accusations have been rebuked at every point, by sound, faithful reporting (and recording) of sound certification practices and procedures.

The Big Lie—and it feels like the past four years have been nothing but lies—reminds me of a pool shark, who not only makes the shot, but “leaves” the cueball either in a good place to make his next shot, or in such a way as to thwart his opponent, and leave him behind the eight-ball.

Ours is a postlapsarian world, to be sure. It has been for quite some time. What came before it was hardly perfect, and certainly it wasn’t paradise. But it was (and is) verifiable. Something we can have faith in.

Perhaps a worldly and political update of 1 Corinthians 13:13 is in order: “And now abideth faith, trust, certify, these three; but the greatest of these is certify.”

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.
The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Blunt Tools

If you’ve followed my posts at all you know that my first novel, Faithless Elector is a thriller about stealing the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College—something that seemed crazily far-fetched to most of the agents I pitched it to years ago. Faithless Elector asks, “what if a group of conspirators wanted to steal a close election by getting a small number Electors to switch their votes—to vote as Faithless Electors—and overturn the result?” What would it take? How might it be done?

What doesn’t get as much attention (what middle child ever does?) is the second book in the Imogen Trager trilogy, Dark Network, which focuses on sub rosa politicking (and murder!) in the lead-up to certifying the votes, and a subsequent Contingency Election.

These thrillers, which include this year’s Emergency Powers, aren’t screeds for or against one party, but unblinking examinations of what could go wrong, about how the systems we the people rely upon to protect the process can also be the very thing that gets exploited–and what a fearless, driven group of investigators might have to do to protect the rule of law.

Today (Dec. 14) is the “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December,” the day provided for in the Constitution, when the Electors meet for the real presidential election. No one expects there to be the kind of faithless voting that took place four years ago when ten (10!) Electors cast their ballots as Faithless Electors. But it’s the second book, Dark Network, that may prove more prophetic because it deals with the aftermath of Electoral voting: Electoral votes must be certified by Congress.

If enough votes are challenged and rejected, and neither candidate has an Electoral College majority (270 or better), the vote for president goes to the House, where each state has but one vote. The Senate votes separately for VP.

The separate Senate and House votes could even mean that the president and vice president are of different parties. But what Dark Network examines, underneath its thriller veneer, is the lengths a group of bad actors might go to in order to undermine faith in the process, to undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

Voting, and faith in its legitimacy, is the blunt tool by which we hold our government accountable. “Without law, there’s only power,” is the tagline from Dark Network. But what about when law protects the powerful?

As this Lawyers, Guns and Money blogpost makes clear, as does my earlier Murder is Everywhere post about the patchwork nature of Electoral rules, each stop on the way to certification and inauguration adds layer upon layer of uncertainty—and potential for mischief—to the process. And while the Supreme Court, hoping to avoid the kind of chaos that would indeed undermine faith in the process, ruled in July that states may make laws binding Electors to their pledge, the ruling only permits those laws. 32 states have no such law.

House members are already agitating to challenge various states’ Electoral votes when Congress meets on January 6. Will they be able to throw out enough Electoral votes to change the anticipated outcome? Probably not. A Senator would have to sign on to the challenge(s), and a majority of both houses would then have to vote in favor of the challenge (throwing out the votes!).

But overturning the result at this stage may not be the goal.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.
The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.
James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.