Sunday, April 29, 2007

Examining the Electoral College—Part 2: History Lesson I

My reactionary blogging colleague (See Part 1) admonishes “Liberals” to take a history lesson, but I think he’s the one who needs to go back to school. First, he talks about the intent of the Founding Fathers in creating the electoral college system and second he likens the college to the “Great Compromise” that resulted in the bicameral legislature. He’s just wrong on both scores.

As Robert Bennett points out in Taming of the Electoral College, one reason that the “Founding Fathers” did not go with a nationwide popular vote was that there was too much variation in voter qualifications established by each state and that the Southern states insisted that their say be weighted by counting each slave as 3/5 of a person, even though of course slaves weren't allowed to vote. Smaller sates (Mr. Reactionary is right about this part) also resisted because it was believed “a nationwide vote would inevitably result in a president from a center of greater population.” But the system that was created, while it has some of the features of the legislature, doesn’t really protect the small states. First, unlike the bicameral Congress, the Electoral “College” is entirely proportional—larger states do have more say than smaller states. It’s as if the Senate and the House of Representatives were combined, with each member having a vote, unlike in Congress where the Senate is a check on the House. The small state protection in the system came in providing that electors would have two votes and could not cast both of them for a candidate from his home state. Thus, the smaller states were assured that the election of a large state candidate would not be inevitable.

It is also important to remember that the electors were intended to really deliberate, to be independent decision makers. Since our reactionary blogger attempts to quote Alexander Hamilton, let me include this quotation from Hamilton, cited by Bennett: The electors were to be
“men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”
That was the intent of the Founding Fathers. Does that sound like the Electoral College that we’ve got now? Nope. Not even close.

So the fact is that not only are the small states no longer protected in the way that the Congress protects them from the “tyranny of the majority,” but it is laughable to think that our current Electoral College bears any resemblance to the deliberative body that the Founders intended. Small states, while they play a role in primaries for mostly accidental and customary reasons, are virtually ignored in the general election. And almost all states have the “first past the post” or “winner take all” system of elector selection, in which electors are supposed to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state. Deliberation? Does that sound like deliberation? If the National "masses are asses" isn't it also true that state "masses are asses"?

It’s also interesting that the system the Founders designed didn’t work for long. It was fine for the first election, because George Washington was a virtually unanimous choice in the election of 1789. But by the elections of 1796 and 1800, there were already problems apparent in part because of the emergence of political parties and their designated “slates” for President and Vice President. As a direct result of these elections, the Twelfth Amendment was adopted, which changed the way the “Electoral College” worked. So if in 1801 the country realized that the system designed by the Founding Fathers needed to be tweaked, why is it so outrageous in 2007 to think the same?

Next: History Lesson II—After the 12th Amendment

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