Electoral College must go

Winner should be the one with most votes

THIS COLLEGE HAS NO IVORY TOWERS, no campus lawn, no library dedicated to a major benefactor.  You can’t apply for admission to this college or get a degree from it. Yes, most of you know about the Electoral College – or do you?

Most people view the Electoral College (if they think of it at all) as a harmless formality, a state-by state collection of political insiders who meet several weeks after the general election in November to officially select the president. The election of 2000 gave many people pause, and changed some views about the harmlessness of this quaint electoral institution.  This year, Donald Trump’s apparent loss of the popular vote means that yet another president could enter office with a vital lack of credibility: in a democracy, the person with the most votes is supposed to win, not lose.

In the midst of the 2000 circus of hanging chads and judicial interventions, the nation was treated to an unpleasant reminder that their Constitution’s presidential election process did not operate infallibly. It seemed somehow wrong and inappropriate, but the Electoral College enabled the election of a popular vote loser. Now, less than 20 years later, it appears to have happened again and it is time to ask ourselves whether the Electoral College has become an anti-democratic anachronism, and whether it is fueling a potentially dangerous discord among the many millions of voters who naively assumed that their votes actually count.

The Electoral College is a musty affair, an outdated legacy of the founding fathers concocted as part of the Constitution’s governance balancing act.  In Federalist Papers No. 39, Madison gamely explained the system of electing federal officeholders as having both “national” and “federal” aspects.  The House of Representatives was designed to “derive its powers from the people,” who would directly vote for their representative in Congress (a “national” system).  On the other hand, the Senate did not represent population (as did the House), but rather existed in part to ensure a level playing field for all states, regardless of population. Thus the Senate was not elected by the people but by state legislatures. As described by James Madison, it derived its powers “from the States as political and coequal societies” (a “federal” system). The executive power, which was a delicate matter given the recent break with a royal authority, was to “be derived from a very compound source.”  By this, Madison meant that each state would have a number of electors equal to the number of its members in the Senate (always 2) and the House (which varied according to population). It was a bit convoluted, as many compromises are, but it had some logic at the time.

The founders could not have imagined a scenario where candidates actively ran for president. This was a time when it was deemed inappropriate for a person to seek high office or campaign for it.  The presidency was an honor to be bestowed, not a prize to be won.  This was also a time when people believed that electors would be chosen by state leaders from among the best and brightest of their respective states.  The Electoral College, as imagined by the founders, has been likened to the College of Cardinals – an elite group detached from the politics and passions of the “average citizen” that would basically self-select their leader.  Those beliefs, combined with the hopelessly naive view that the new nation could avoid the perils of partisanship and faction if only it left the selection of its chief magistrate to elite electors chosen by the states, led to the compromise that created the Electoral College.

Initially, there was no obligation on the part of electors to pay any deference to presidential popular vote. Over time, the states decided to choose their respective electors in accordance with their statewide general election popular vote. All states choose their electors by direct statewide popular vote, except for Maine and Nebraska, which have enacted hybrid systems that choose some electors according to the popular vote winner in each Congressional district. This lack of uniformity could cause some concern in a close contest, where many voters would wonder whether these two small and largely rural states were the tail wagging the dog.

Well over 200 years later, the Electoral College endures.  This hybrid approach to electing the president has proven incapable of reflecting the true will of the people on four occasions. There are some who dismiss concerns about the Electoral College as overwrought.  Writing nearly a decade before the 2000 election, the deputy director of the Federal Election Commission defended the Electoral College as a “strong and resilient” system that on rare occasion failed to elect the candidate with the most votes.  These were deemed “historical oddities” that time had proven to be of no or little consequence.

I suppose it depends on how you feel about being led by the person who didn’t get the most votes – in a democracy, I’d call that something more than a historical oddity.  In 1824, the House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams despite Andrew Jackson’s lead in both the Electoral College and the popular vote, and a truly corrupt bargain tied to the end of Reconstruction put Rutherford Hayes in the White House despite the fact that Samuel Tilden received more popular votes. It may not have mattered very much whether Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison won in 1888, but it mattered a lot that George Bush and not Al Gore was president in the first years of this century.  And I believe that it will matter even more (and in my view not in a good way) that Donald Trump, and not Hillary Clinton, will serve in the White House for the next four years.

If we were devising a presidential electoral process from scratch today, we would almost certainly do so in a manner that fully respected the national popular vote, which after all is the cleanest and most credible expression of the will of the people. I doubt that we would turn to the states, as the founders did, to play a meaningful role in the process.  Neither the states nor their legislatures are, or should be, selecting our president.  If “we the people” means anything, it ought to mean that federal leaders are elected by the entire national voting population. Amending the Constitution isn’t easy (nor should it be), so moving toward a popular vote system isn’t likely in the short term.

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Our Electoral College system has failed us twice in 16 years, and several times before that. That system appears to have once again given us a president who lost the popular vote, a president who will wield extraordinary powers, powers unimaginable to James Madison and the other Founders. The stakes are too high to continue this anachronistic approach to electing the president of what we like to believe, in our hubris and naiveté, to be the world’s beacon of democratic governance.  Take a good look at the Supreme Court’s dilution of the Voting Rights Act, of blatant voter suppression laws and efforts in many states, and the prospect of much more of the same under a GOP-controlled Congress and an alt-right influenced president.  Then ask yourself if our electoral system is working for you.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.