Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fumbling Founders – Part 2

Our founding fathers knew they had not created a fool-proof system of government. When asked what they had created, Franklin is reputed to have said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Not all members of the Continental Congress heartily supported the document they had created and some actively worked against it. But in the end, it was adopted as the best they could do given the mixed ideologies and interests they held.

One of the compromises made involved the means of electing a President and Vice-President. At the outset the Vice-President was simply the person who got the second most votes for President. It quickly became clear that such an arrangement paired men of different philosophies of governance, expecting them to work harmoniously for the policy of only one of them. That was soon remedied by an amendment to the Constitution.

But a larger problem existed in the creation of an Electoral College to select the President. Unfortunately we’ve chosen to limp along with that ill-conceived monstrosity chained to our ankles for more than two centuries. It grew out of the founder’s general, although not universal, mistrust of the common uneducated masses. Many believed, and even liberal Jefferson agreed to some degree, that it was not wise to have a purely democratic selection of the President, in which all white males over a prescribed age would be able to vote directly for President. So an intermediary body, the Electoral College, was created whose members, chosen from among the leading members of society, would cast ballots for the President based on the results of the popular vote in their district. Those men (originally they were all men) would, on a specified day, meet in their home states, cast their ballots and transmit them to the United States House of Representatives where, on another specified day, the ballots would be counted and a President and Vice-President declared.

As electorate has expanded to include almost all citizens over the age of eighteen years of age, the Electoral College has become a system more and more remote from the actual voting population. It is doubtful if more than a handful of voters, after that first generation passed away, have known the names of those men whom they were electing to vote in their stead. Still we continue, for political reasons, to use a system which was devised for philosophical reasons, i.e. distrust of the common people’s judgment.

The system has worked to elect the choice of the people, except in a few cases, for the reason that most electors have faithfully voted for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. Few states require the electors to vote in any prescribed way so, in theory, they could ignore the popular vote and choose someone who received fewer votes than the winner. In only a few rare instances have “false electors” done so.

Another reason the system has usually worked as envisioned is because the majority of states, with two exceptions, instruct their electors to vote for the candidate who won the majority of votes among their population of voters. The two states that do not follow that rule, splitting their vote proportionally, to mirror the popular vote, are small and their practice does not materially affect the outcome of most elections. But if other states were to decide that they would like to proportion their votes, rather than give them all to the victor, more pernicious results could occur. And there has been, and is again, talk that some states might choose to do so.

We have cast our ballots for President for over two centuries, believing that every vote counts, but it has never been true that every vote counts equally. And the system could be skewed even further were the states to attempt to shape the system to the advantage of one party or the other.

Our Founding Fathers flubbed the election process for President and Vice-President. Every election since has left us waiting to know, not who won the most votes from the people but who managed to persuade the voters in the states with the largest electoral vote. And on those occasions when the two systems produced a different answer, the nation waited months for the House of Representatives and/or the Supreme Court to sort things out and declare a winner.

There is an easier way in this day of easy communication and travel. We need to eliminate the Electoral College and elect our Presidents by popular vote. It is that simple.

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