Monday, December 19, 2016

The Electoral College--An Idea Whose Time Is Now

     "...(T)he greatest obstacle to change...has always been public apathy--an apathy induced and corroborated by a false understanding of the inner meaning and practical consequences of the present arrangements."  (The Electoral College by Lucius Wilmerding, Jr., ix)

     Has the greatest obstacle actually been public apathy or the self-styled "mainstream" press--that favors ratings and advertising over responsibility--and fails to keep us informed?

     "The subject," said James Wilson on the floor of the Convention itself, "has greatly divided this House....  It is in truth the most difficult of all on which we have to decide."  (LW, 3)

     The idea swam in the Sea of Necessity and surfaced because of a problem.

     "The electoral voting system was adopted instead of a direct voting system only because it seemed the most practicable way to give equal weights to equal masses of persons in a country where the suffrage laws varied from state to state."  (LW, xi)

     Although the problem and the purpose sometimes collide, the latter has the right of way.

     "There is, in truth, a disparity between the intention of the Constitution with regard to the election of the President and the practical workings of the machinery which has been devised to fulfill it.  The purpose of that instrument is, and has always been, to elevate to the executive chair the man who is the choice of the majority of the people in the nation as a whole."  (LW, ix)

     How do we know?  Well, when the Convention made the most difficult decision of all, James Madison spoke.

     "The President is now to be elected by the people."  (LW, 19)

     Alexander Hamilton acknowledged the same during the battle for ratification.

     "The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years...."  (The Federalist Papers, No. 69)

     The disparity between the idea and the reality is revealed whenever the popular vote and the Electoral College are out of sync, which has occurred five times.  It usually has been due to political shenanigans.  That has been the pattern.

     In 1824, there were four candidates and, because no one had a majority, the election went to the House of Representatives, which chooses between the top three.  The Speaker, Henry Clay, who was thus eliminated, threw his support to John Quincy Adams who subsequently made him Secretary of State.  In effect, a coalition government was formed, which would prove to be the exception, not the rule.

     In 1876, Governor Samuel Tilden (D-NY) led Governor Rutherford B. Hayes (R-OH) by 250,000 and needed only one more electoral vote to win.  But a commission, voting on strict party lines, awarded every disputed State to the Republican.

     In 1888, President Grover Cleveland (D-NY) led former Senator Benjamin Harrison (R-IN) by 90,000.  But Senator Matthew Quay (R-PA) bought enough votes in key States, and the Republican won.

     In 2000, Vice President Al Gore led by 540,000.  But Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush's Secretary of State had purged the voter rolls, was critical.  And the slim margin of Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) was fading.  But the United States Supreme Court stopped the recount, and the Republican won.

     In 2016, Hillary Clinton leads by 2.8 million.  But with purging the voter rolls,* the Comey letter, and Russian hacking, the Republican was declared the winner.

     There is a practical reason to close the gap between the idea and the reality, which has to do with service.  The first duty of the Chief Magistrate of the Union is to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States"; and one aspect of that role was touched upon by John Adams during the Senate's titles debates when he proposed, "His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of Their Liberties."  (Emphasis added.)  But, while Washington was satisfied with "Mr. President," an important point was made about the oath:  He was to be, as our historian noted, "the guardian of the people"--and his successors too.  But such a task cannot be mastered by those without character.  (LW, 5)

     "The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.  Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States."  (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, No. 68)

     There was a final check on demagogues, fraud, and unusual situations.

     "One advantage of Electors is," according to James Madison, "although generally the mere mouths of their constituents, they may be intentionally left sometimes to their own judgment, guided by further information that may be acquired by them: and finally, what is of material importance, they will be able, when ascertaining, which may not be till a late hour, that the first choice of their constituents is utterly hopeless, to substitute in the electoral vote the name known to be their second choice."  (LW, 180-181)

     Some have spoken of "a constitutional crisis" if the Electors were to be true to "the original intention"--which should delight self-styled "conservatives"--and reconcile the apparent disparity between themselves and the national popular vote.  But how can a constitutional crisis be caused by a constitutional remedy?  As Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

(c)2016 Marvin D. Jones.  All rights reserved.



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