Sunday, September 18, 2011

Non-Recall Article: The Electoral College Switcheroo

Here's a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post on the Electoral College, and some related thoughts below:

A little follow-upon this piece, including what I feel is some needed history:

Even after Bush’s “wrong winner” victory, I thought the Electoral College would easily survive any attacks. However, if Pennsylvania (and others states, like Wisconsin and Michigan) change to the district-based system and that costs the Obama (or a future Democrat) the presidency, it would be devastating blow to the College. Even with the history. The Democrats would, almost by necessity, focus their efforts on killing the Electoral College (and would eventually succeed).

This issue will no longer be the undemocratic nature of the College, or whether it benefits a few states. Instead, it will be that the presidential election can be gamed. It would be the equivalent to allowing a baseball team to move the fence in or back for each game. Instead of the current race, every four years, we would have a crazy battle royal for control of the state legislature, and then a state-by-state move to change the voting rules to benefit one candidate or the other. We actually have had something similar – the presidential primary and caucus system, which changes every four years. That process is a complete mess, but because it doesn’t benefit any party or interest group, we aren’t changing it. But it would be much different with the Electoral College.

Unfortunately, the history of the Electoral College system is almost universally ignored. Here’s some details, including why we have it, and what it was suppose to achieve:

The members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were particularly proud of the electoral system. Alexander Hamilton called the future Electoral College "excellent" and wrote that the method of selecting presidents was "almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure."

The many "anti-Federalist" opponents of the Constitution did not focus on what was to be called the Electoral College. Looking back, it is clear that the popular election of a president was not a prime concern, though not for the reasons many think. The option of choosing a president by popular vote was voted on a number of times during the convention, and only two states voted in its favor.

There were a number of reasons to oppose popular vote: Many of the conventioneers believed that the country was too large to directly elect the president; some Southerners realized their state's impact would be diluted, as the three-fifths compromise gave the slave states more impact in Congress than they would have in a popular vote; some states'-rights advocates wanted the states to have more of a say in the selection; small states were concerned that their votes would be drowned out; while still others simply did not trust the people to choose properly.

However, perhaps the most important reason for the lack of enthusiasm for the popular vote was that there was little experience in directly electing executives: Throughout the country, the governors - the chief executives of each state -were not chosen by the voters. Instead, in 10 of the 13 original states, the state legislature chose the governor, and in two of the other three states, if no candidate received a clear majority, the legislature made the choice. This was the model for election that the conventioneers drew on. The original plans brought to Philadelphia, and the first outlines of a presidency adopted by the convention, all provided for election of the chief executive by Congress.

However, as every student is taught, America's government is built on the principle of checks and balances. The convention was concerned about handicapping the president by placing too much power in Congress' hands. Therefore, a committee eventually designed an alternate Congress of electors, made up with the exact same amount of members, to choose the candidates. They also specifically banned any federal office holder from being a member of this congress, and, as an added protection, the electors did not meet as a national group, but rather met in each individual state.

Despite the creation of what would one day be the Electoral College -- it was not called this until the 1800s -- Congress still had some part to play in the selection of a president. In order to prevent the big states from dominating the choice, each elector was given two votes, one of which had to be cast for someone from another state.
Because of the diffuse nature of the nascent republic, many believed that the electors' votes would be divided among favorite sons, and therefore they would be unable to select a president. If this came to pass, the electors would have served as a nominating committee. The top five candidates would be sent to Congress, which would then select a president in a state by state vote of the congressional delegations, the winning candidate needing a majority of the states to succeed, the second place candidate would be the vice president.

This situation, where Congress selected the president from a set of nominees, came about twice, first in 1800 and then in 1824. The first resulted in the 12th Amendment, changing the Electoral College by dividing up the elector's vote into one for a presidential candidate and one for a vice presidential candidate; the second resulted in the creation of a strong two party system. With the exceptions of the disputed elections of 1876 and 2000, the Electoral College has since selected the president without complaint.

It is clear that the Electoral College was not a hastily thrown together "Rube Goldberg" contraption, designed as an anti-democratic device intended to deprive the voters of the right to choose a president. Nor was its goal to benefit a few states. Instead, the founders wanted to create a functional government that was accepted by all. The Electoral College has served its primary goal: Providing a stable, fairly representative government for almost all of the country's existence.

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