Friday, November 11, 2016

In defense of the Electoral College ...

Every presidential election brings about a fresh round of criticisms of the Electoral College and 2016 was no different.  President-elect Donald Trump garnered 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton's 232, securing him the biggest upset in presidential history.  That fact, however, was not the most painful blow to the Democrats' wounded pride.  Despite winning the presidency, Trump lost the popular vote by approximately 200,000 votes.  That sticks in the craw of the liberal segment of society.  Most elections work on the principle of a plurality vote -- the most votes wins the race. 

In 21st century America, people want to immediately call to question why we would not have a direct election for the presidency.

Inflamed passion and a mob mentality are the preeminent reasons the Framers of the Constitution sought to implement a republic rather than a direct democracy.  James Madison, one of the key individuals in writing the Constitution, addressed this issue in his classic Federalist #10.  Madison wrote that a serious concern in our then new nation was how to deal with what he referred to as 'factions.'

The individuals behind these groups could easily sway a popular vote.  Madison warned, "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people."  It would not be difficult for a charismatic individual to capture the hearts and minds of the American people, thus the Framers believed a republican form of government (note the little 'r') would be the most ideal.

Madison and other Framers understood that a direct democracy was dangerous and untenable.  He continued, "... such [direct] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."  When citizens have direct control over governmental issues, they are prone to making terrible choices that break down a society.

The remedy, according to Madison, was to use a chosen group of representatives,
... whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.  Under such a regulation it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves ...
A small, deliberative body will be far more likely to make a solid choice than the general public.  This notion is reflected thoroughly in the Constitution, which created four key institutions -- the House of Representatives, the Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court.  Of these, only the House was directly elected by the people.  Senators were chosen by their respective state legislatures, and the members of the Supreme Court were chosen by the president (with approval from the Senate).

How to best choose a chief executive was a point of contention at the Constitution Convention in 1787.  At the Convention, one of the more popular ideas was to mimic British policy, whereby their Parliament selects a prime minister.  The sentiment at the Convention was to have Congress select a president in a similar capacity.

Americans should also be cognizant of the fact that our Constitution grants more power to a chief executive than most other democracies.  The presidency combines the roles of head of state and head of government into one office.  This type of power vested into one person should make us leery of entrusting the people to select this individual.

This notion was asserted by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #68, where he wrote, "It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. ... It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station ..." 

Though a popular vote was never seriously considered for selecting the president, the Framers believed that the nation would best be served if the body of representatives who chose the president be convened only for that specific purpose.  Thus, the Constitution included a clause that forbade members of Congress from being members of the Electoral College.  Such an impetus further guarantees the principle of separation of powers found within the Constitution.

The means of selecting the president through the Electoral College still permits the people to retain influence, just not direct influence.  The Constitution provides that each state will have a number of electors who may be chosen however that state deems fit.  This provides the people of each state the opportunity to place men and women of character in the position to choose the single most powerful individual in the nation.

Moreover, Americans do not realize that they have absolutely no Constitutional right to vote for president.  States merely choose to allow their citizens to vote for president.  The practice varies from state to state, but in many instances, both major parties select a slate of delegates to be the members of the Electoral College should their preferred candidate win.  However, there is no guarantee that citizens would be permitted to vote, nor is there any promise that slate of delegates will cast their electoral vote for the candidate prescribed by the state's citizens.

In the early years of the republic, many states did not bother having a popular vote for president.  And why should they?    The very purpose of the Electoral College is to prevent a direct influence from the public on the presidential election, while still retaining the overarching principle that the people have the ultimate authority in our system of government.

Even with the current incarnation of the Electoral College, the members have no obligation to cast a vote in line with the popular vote of their state.  Several states have created laws that impose a fine if one of its electors does not vote with their state, but such fines are minimal and small contrivances when compared to acting as they see fit.

Critics of the Electoral College call this method undemocratic and arcane.  Maybe some truth exists to those charges.  Yet, these critiques only make sense within the lens of modern American political culture, which has somehow coalesced into the notion that we should have a right to choose everything.  Upon what do the opponents of the Electoral College base this idea?  Why should modern America entrust its citizenry with the important task of selecting the most powerful single official in the country?

Americans pay lip service to respecting the Founding Fathers and invoke the ghosts of great leaders like Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin.  It appears that the heaps of praise for those men is only relevant when it is politically convenient.  Politicians and ordinary citizens love these patriotic leaders until they actually see what they created. 

Instead of abandoning the Electoral College, I believe America should abandon the popular vote instead.  Return the Electoral College to its rightful place as a unique body with the sole purpose of choosing a chief executive for the nation.  Let each state carefully choose electors who will consider the options and make selections accordingly.

Does this sound like an insane idea?  This occurs at the federal, state, and local levels of government.  We already trust people and government agencies to make important decisions for us constantly, which is the entire point of a republic. 

Incidentally, a national popular vote to decide the presidency is problematic and impractical for many reasons.  Candidates seeking election would focus their campaigns on major urban centers, and abandon the rural parts of America.  Changing the system would also require the Constitution to be amended to eliminate the Electoral College.

Amending the Constitution (typically) requires 2/3rd of both houses of Congress to officially propose an amendment and then 3/4th of the states to ratify an amendment.  Given that small states benefit from the Electoral College, it is highly unlikely that an amendment proposal would gain any traction. 

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