Part III - Determining a Winner
The founders aversion to democratic elections resulted in some interesting electoral structures. For example the Constitution specified that Senators would be elected by state legislatures rather than direct election. This proved convenient in many ways. For example when New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912 Albert Fall famously walked around the New Mexico legislature handing out packets of money just before the vote which made him one the first two New Mexico US Senators. This practice was common in many states where candidates found it so much simpler than campaigning. It took 125 years before this process was changed via the 17th amendment to the Constitution ratified in 1913.
One of the most idiosyncratic institutions devised by the framers of the constitution was the Electoral College formulated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by the Committee on Postponed Parts (now there is a committee that would fit right in today).
What the founders really wanted was for the "people" or at least those they saw fit to enfranchise, to elect individuals such as themselves who would in turn select a president. They meant Electors who were educated, rich property owners, not subject to the emotions or hysteria of the mob, , what today we would call the elite and were then often referred to as the ruling class. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, thought that “the people could not be trusted to intelligently rule themselves” so it should come as no surprise the founders thought that a ruling class should be in control. The Electoral College was the mechanism by which they sought to accomplish that.
The other critical issue that made the direct election of the president anathema was one seldom discussed or even noted - slavery. When Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the president, the savvy Virginian James Madison responded that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” What he meant was that since slaves could not vote the South would have a much smaller voting population if direct election was in effect. Therefore the South would likely be out voted by the North. The Electoral College would level the playing field since the number of electors a state had was based on the state's total white population plus three fifths of the number of slaves. This was no small matter as 40% of the population of Virginia were slaves; in South Carolina it was 54% in 1780 rising to over 60% later. The electoral college system proved very effective, with southerners Washington, Jefferson and Monroe all elected president.
The "people", being the ungrateful wretches that we are, never followed the founders script very well and the Electoral College now votes based on the rules in place for each state. Because most state have winner-take-all rules, presidential candidates have no reason to pay much attention to the issues of concern to voters in states where the statewide outcome is a foregone conclusion. In 2012 two-thirds of general-election campaign events (176 of 253) were in just 4 states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa). Thirty-eight states were ignored.
So the lasting remnant of this odd system is that often states with small populations have a disproportional influence and a few swing states have an outsized influence on the election and so get the lions share of the campaign focus and money. The most obvious effect is that it is possible for a president to be elected via the Electoral College while not receiving a majority of the popular vote. While we used to think such an occurrence was a remnant of the past we have now had this happen twice in the current century - not a recipe for legitimacy or for unifying the country.
So should the Electoral College be eliminated? Well if you are in a swing state why would you want to give up the power that comes with the status quo? These "battleground” states receive 7% more federal grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.
Since the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution it would take a constitutional amendment to change it, meaning that members of Congress from at least some of the states that might be disadvantaged by direct election by popular vote would need to support it and two thirds of the states would need to ratify it. Not easily done.
There is a creative alternative that does not require a constitutional amendment to achieve the same effect. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among a group of U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact is designed to ensure that the candidate who wins the most popular votes is elected president, and it will come into effect only when it will guarantee that outcome. For that to occur the legislation must be passed by states which together have a total electoral vote of at least 270, enough to elect a president. As of 2016, it has been adopted by ten states and the District of Columbia. Together, they have 165 electoral votes, which is 30.7% of the total Electoral College and 61.1% of the votes needed to give the compact legal force.
Thomas Jefferson, paraphrasing Joseph de Maistre, said that "The government you elect is the government you deserve". That seems too simplistic. The jury is still out on whether a large group of people can govern themselves effectively and fairly over a long period of time. The Founders were clearly skeptical of the American people's ability to do just that.
Government is people acting through a set of institutions and processes that they devise and continue to change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Ben Franklin said that the government crafted at the constitutional convention was a republic "if you can keep it." Franklin may have been a bit self serving in that remark because our ability to keep the republic is directly related to the mechanisms that he and his fellow framers built into the constitution. If the republic is going to continue we need to be willing and able to consider those processes and improve them where necessary and possible. That can only happen, be accepted, and be seen as legitimate if the broadest spectrum of the citizenry are engaged and participate. And that struggle continues.
What changes to the electoral process would you support or advocate? Consider some options:
Determining a Winner:
I look forward to your suggestions and comments.
One Small Voice
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