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  • Contested Election Laws: Representation, Elections, and Party Building in Pennsylvania, 1788–1794
  • David W. Houpt (bio)

In preparation for the 2012 presidential election, members of the Pennsylvania GOP have been considering changing the way the state awards its electoral votes. Under the current system, the candidate who wins the greatest number of votes statewide receives all twenty of the state’s votes in the Electoral College. In recent years, heavy Democratic voting in urban areas such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh has offset Republican victories in rural parts of the state. In order to build on their strength in the less-populated areas, Republicans are considering having Pennsylvania award electors based on a district method. While this approach is technically constitutional, political commentators have been quick to condemn the proposal as unethical and potentially dangerous.1 This is not, however, the first time a political party has attempted to change election laws to their advantage. The manipulation of election law dates back to the first elections under the Constitution. [End Page 257]

Concern over the lack of representation in the British Parliament was one of the major reasons the colonists decided to declare independence.2 The Revolution established the principle of actual representation—that all regions of a state or the nation ought to be represented in the legislature, and that federal representation ought to be apportioned by population in the House of Representatives—but there were still many questions about what that meant in practice. As the country went through the process of establishing a government, representation remained a divisive subject. Specifically, there was disagreement over how to elect a federal representative and whether the electoral votes a state cast for president ought to be divided by district or given completely to the statewide winner.

Historians who have discussed representation and election law in the early Republic tend to focus on ideology. The standard narrative is that Federalists supported at-large elections because only the most qualified, well-known candidates had a chance at winning. Additionally, large election districts ensured that no single interest group had too much influence. Anti-Federalists, and later Republicans, advocated district elections to ensure that representatives remained tied to local interests. Whereas Federalists wanted the “best” men to serve in office, Anti-Federalists and Republicans believed a representative should be one of the people.3 There is certainly truth to this account, but a straight ideological explanation fails to explain why Pennsylvania changed the way it elected representatives four times in the first four congressional elections even though Federalists held a majority in the state legislature the entire time.

The federal Constitution left it to each state to select a method for electing representatives. In 1788 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law providing for at-large elections for the commonwealth’s allotted eight seats in the House of Representatives. Each voter wrote the names of eight different men on a piece of paper, and the eight men receiving the greatest number of votes were elected. Although Federalists remained in control of the state legislature, an election law passed in 1791 divided the state into districts for elections to the Second Congress. Then, in 1792, the legislature narrowly voted to return to at-large elections. Finally, in 1794, the state settled on a district system. While Federalists and Anti-Federalists/Republicans clearly had ideological disagreements, a review of the debates surrounding the framing of election laws reveals that political strategy played a decisive role in the decision to select a particular mode of electing representatives. Strategically, Federalists favored the at-large system because, while they had a numerical [End Page 258] advantage over their opponents, most of their supporters were concentrated in the more populous eastern part of the state, in and around Philadelphia. Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, favored a district system because their supporters were dispersed throughout the state. Federalists could easily dominate at-large elections, but a state divided into election districts could lead to the election of a number of western Anti-Federalists.

In addition to illuminating the ways in which partisans manipulated election laws to get the upper hand, a close study of the change between at-large and district...


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