The Electoral College
In the last segment I addressed the proposal by some candidates for the Presidency to pack the Supreme court. In this segment I will discuss the Electoral College. There are various proposals by the same candidates to modify it or eliminate it altogether.
While any proposal to change the Constitution or amend it should be approached with extreme caution, changing or modifying the Electoral College is one idea worthy of debate.
The current proposals regarding the Electoral College can be understood in the context of the 2016 presidential election.
President Trump penetrated the vaunted “Blue Wall”, a collection of states in the East whose electoral votes had gone to the Democrat nominee dating back to
Ronald Reagan. His feat was unexpected, defied conventional wisdom and left much of the country laughing at pundits, pollsters, and “professional” journalists. He won the election in the Electoral College, while his opponent managed to secure the popular vote by running up huge margins of votes lodged on her behalf in heavily populated California.
In modern times we have seen three presidents elected with less than a majority of the popular vote. Bill Clinton (43% in 1992), George W. Bush (48% in 2000) and Donald Trump (47% in 2016).
This would have been of little concern to the framers of the Constitution. They constructed the Constitution with a healthy skepticism about the wisdom of the universal suffrage, much less entrusting the election of critical offices to the direct vote of the populace. For example, it was not until 1913, with the passage of the 17thAmendment that U.S. senators were elected by voters in the respective states. Until then it was an appointed position. And the wise men who drafted our Constitution would have been scandalized at the notion of granting felons the vote must less as some democrat candidates and Speaker of the House Pelosi of San Francisco has suggested, sixteen-year-old kids. In passing I find it ironical that the legislature of Speaker Pelosi’s home state determined that the same juveniles she wishes to enfranchise can’t be held fully responsible for the brutal and violent crimes they sometimes commit because brain science supposedly supposedly established the judgement centers in their brains haven’t’ fully formed.
Most citizens understand the President is not elected by a direct, popular vote. Rather the Constitution in Article II, Section One, states he or she is to be elected by a system of electors, known as the Electoral College. Each state has a group of electors equal to the number of state representatives in the house and senate. Plus the District of Columbia has three. That means there are 538 electors and it takes 270 to elect the president. A president is elected not by how actual votes of citizens are distributed. It is done by how the Electoral College votes are distributed in what are 51 separate elections.
When the framers developed this means of selecting a Chief Executive, it was a novel approach. From their historical perspective the Chief Executives of most nations were chosen by bloodline, military power, or legislative selection. The Electoral College was, in some scholars’ views, an experiment. The reviews regarding its success have been mixed.
There are two additional aspects to the Electoral College that need to be understood.
First, the Constitution delegates to the States, the appointment of the Electors “in Such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.”
And it this regard, most states employ a “winner take all” system. That means that if a state has 20 electoral votes available and one candidate receives 10 million actual votes, but the other candidate receives 10 million votes plus one, all 20 electoral votes go to the winner and none to the candidate who had millions vote cast for him or her.
California is a prime example. It has 59 electoral votes, the largest number of electoral votes of any state. Almost 20% of the number of electoral votes needed to be elected president. Yet California as it relates to the Electoral College (and barring the emergence of a Reagan like figure) is a one-party state.The registration advantage of one party is so lop-sided, it is felt there is no need for the nominees to even come to California other than to drop in on the swells in San Francisco, L.A., and Silicon Valley to pick up campaign funds.
Texas has, until recently, had a similar imbalance in favor of the other Party.
Looked at another way, a candidate can take just 3 states of the 50, California, Illinois and New York and be well on the way to victory. In a presidential election, there is never a real contest in any of these states, yet they account for 105 electoral votes, more than one third of what it takes to be elected. Yet, again, there is no need for either candidate to campaign in any of these three states. And the margins that the candidate from the dominant party run up is of little consequence.
The second aspect of the Electoral College to be considered is that most of the arguments that originally undergirded the Electoral College system have long ago melted into history.
In the federalist papers it was argued that the election of the president should be by “a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass,(who) will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” Those noble sentiments notwithstanding, Electors, modernly, are just party representatives. They are not these so-called persons of discernment, if such a person ever existed. And what is even more concern is that nothing in the Constitution requires the electors cast their ballots in accordance with the votes of their states. The problem of the so-called “faithless elector.” Many states, however, have laws to obviate this loophole.
The Federalist papers also contended that the Electoral College was a means to keep foreign influences from “an improper ascendancy in our councils.” The fearful Russians notwithstanding that is hardly a concern in today’s world.
The one idea that hasn’t lost its currency was the thought that an Electoral College would ensure all the states in the nation had a say in the selection of the Chief Executive. Individual States, during the formation of the Republic, were jealous of their prerogatives and of each other. They didn’t want a single populous state or region to put forth a favorite son who would represent his region to the detriment of the smaller states.
Does the operation of the Electoral College have to be this way? Is it required by the Constitution?
The answer to both questions is No.
Even if it would be too difficult, politically, to amend the Constitution and replace the Electoral College with the direct popular vote for President, there is nothing in the constitution that requires that the Electoral College votes in the states be “winner take all.” In fact two states award electoral votes proportionally based upon the voting in individual congressional districts. Those two states are Maine and Nebraska.
Nationwide, were other states to change from a “winner take all” model it might lead to a real campaign in many more states than the so-called swing or battleground states.
Even if the minority party registration in individual states were only 30% or 40%, it would behoove candidates to campaign in congressional districts so that those electoral votes could be added to others in other regions of the country. That 30% or 40% in California would translate into the same number of electoral votes as Pennsylvania, which turned the tide in the 2016 election. It might rival Florida that, in my opinion, gets way too much attention every 4 years.
In the nascent movement to replace the Electoral College, there are some States seeking to circumvent its provisions by awarding all their electoral votes to the winner of the national count. Such an approach is shortsighted. It’s a formula by which the state itself is disenfranchising the state’s own voters. For example, even though an overwhelming majority of, say New Mexico’s voters cast their ballots for one candidate, because California and New York with their huge populations favor a different candidate, New Mexico’s voter’s ballots would be completely wiped out.
As to eliminating the Electoral College altogether and awarding the election to the person who wins the most popular votes nationwide, its best to remember the old saying of “be careful what you wish for.” The framers of the Constitution possessed a certain genius for avoiding crippling ideas. There is a reason they insisted on a majority of electoral votes. Had they opted for popular vote not only would the smaller states have been disenfranchised in favor of the bigger ones, but the Presidency could be won by a plurality of votes.
Consider for a moment that there are two dozen men and women running for the democrat nomination. Three quarters of them have little to recommend them in terms of judgement, experience or proven leadership. Many of them are adopting socialistic principles without fully understanding the implications. There is little loyalty in the group for even the traditional values of the democrat party. Is there any reason to believe that if it was possible to win an open election, that same number of persons would not run for the Presidency itself? If a dozen or so ran for President, is it possible that with a disciplined campaign someone with 30%, or 25% or less of the popular vote could be elected President?
Those questions and others need to be answered before any change, not after.
For more articles on the Constitution and writings by Phil Cline, visit philcline.com