Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Electoral College: Time For A Change? – Part II

Is the method by which American presidential elections are held democratic? Is the practice of what traditionally had become a core American principle, “one person, one vote” still firmly established? Does the Electoral College follow the precepts of democracy even though it disproportionably represents the votes of some Americans? If not, should we switch to a direct voting system that truly represents the popular vote? These are some of the questions raised by those who challenge the existing system.

The Floridian Dilemma

However, it is not only the “one person, one vote” concept that comes under scrutiny. Here is an example of how a decision by the founding fathers of the country, one that created a college of electors, has a significant and deleterious effect on your vote as a Florida citizen. Based on the 2010 population census, Florida’s count of 18,900,000 people earned the state 29 electors to vote in the Electoral College. The nine states with the smallest populations recorded a combined number of 7,293,000 people. However, despite the fact that Florida’ s population is two and a half times that of the nine smallest states, combined they have an equal number of electors (29) in the Electoral College, and thus an equal, but disproportionate weight in an election.

Comparing Wyoming, the smallest state, to Florida, reveals an even stronger contrast. With a population of 558,168, Wyoming is entitled to three electors. As a result, while each of Wyoming’s electors represents only 168,056 voters, each of Florida’s electors represents 651,724 voters. This leads to an egregious discrepancy whereby each Wyoming resident has 3.3 times the voting power of each Florida resident. Although that huge discrepancy seems to contravene the essential precepts of the democratic process, the founding fathers, the creators of the Constitution designed the system to accomplish exactly the result described above. How did that come about?

Resurrecting that issue now is particularly relevant since on September 17 th, about one month from the day that you read this article, the country will be celebrating the 225 th anniversary of the signing and ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Consider this: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 first met on May 23 rd. In less than four months time the delegates to that convention argued, debated, negotiated, and compromised, creating a document that has lasted, inspired, and thrived like no other. Also remarkable is the fact that other than the ten amendments that formed the Bill Of Rights, there have been only 17 amendments or corrections to the original document. It would take our current dysfunctional Congress four months to agree what day of the week it is.

The “Compromise” Document

It is widely acknowledged that the document finalized as the U.S. Constitution was the result of a whole series of compromises, a word described in last month’s article, as being viewed by many of our current legislators as anathema. In 1787 there were arguments between those who favored adding a Bill of Rights and those who did not; between northern and southern states; between farmers and businessmen; between big states and small ones. Last month’s article described what has become known as the Three Fifths Compromise that was agreed upon to satisfy the slave states. However, in a sense it was what is now known as “The Great Compromise” that formed the basis for the fundamental architecture of Congress, as well as for that of the Electoral College.

Early during the Constitutional Convention, while considering the fundamental structure of the Congress, the delegates initially favored a single chamber with the number of representatives from each state proportioned to the state’s population. That concept, known as the Virginia Plan, was advanced (of course) by the larger states. (Since each state’s population number would determine how many representatives would be assigned, the larger states would have more representatives, and thus more power). However, the smaller states objected, endorsing the New Jersey Plan that entailed an equal number of representatives from each state.

According to Wikipedia, “On July 2, the Convention was deadlocked over giving each State an equal vote, with five States in the affirmative, five in the negative, and one divided.” The problem was referred to a committee consisting of one delegate from each State to reach a compromise. On July 5, the committee submitted its report, which became the basis for the “Great Compromise” of the Convention.

Creation of a Bicameral Congress

The report recommended the creation of an upper house (the Senate) where each State would have an equal number of representatives, and a lower house (the House of Representatives), in which each State would have one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants. Both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were early advocates of this two-house, or bicameral legislature. It was a clever resolution that ultimately satisfied both sides of the conflict.

Having defined the legislative structure, and the representation that each state would have under the new United States Constitution, another major issue to be resolved was which format should be used to elect the President. One concept was to have the state legislatures make the choice. Another was to allow the House of Representatives to do so. Neither of these choices found favor with the delegates. As described in Part I of this article, the third suggestion, to allow the election to be decided by a direct national popular vote was viewed with great suspicion by most delegates.

A Republic Not a Democracy

This attitude was the result of a philosophic view of government by the founders, one not fully recognized by most Americans today, many who believe we live in a “democracy.” This is detailed in Article 4, Section 4, of the United States Constitution where it states “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of Government.” [Not a democracy.]

This is more commonly reflected in the Pledge of Allegiance––“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands …” As Benjamin Franklin was leaving the building where, after four months of hard work, the Constitution had been completed and signed, a lady asked him what kind of government the convention had created. A very old, very tired, and very wise Benjamin Franklin replied; “A Republic, ma’am if you can keep it.”

Webster’s dictionary defines a republic as “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”

Democracy functions by direct majority vote of the people. When an issue is to be decided, the entire population votes on it; the majority wins and rules. A democracy is rule by majority perceptions––what some of the founding fathers described as “mobocracy.”

The passion with which the concept of democracy was denigrated in the early years of the nation is typified by the following: “The experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived.”––John Quincy Adams; “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” ––James Madison; “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”––John Adams.

The Concept of “Electors” Is Established

Considering the attitudes described above, since a democracy would mandate a direct popular vote, it is not surprising that during the Convention’s debate, suggestions to use that format to elect the president was quickly rejected.

Once again, a compromise was reached, one that was essentially based on “The Great Compromise” described above. It adopted the doctrine of electors serving in the same numbers that resulted in that previous accommodation, that is the combined total of persons allotted to each state’s congressional delegation to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

That satisfied the founders’ belief in a republican nation rather than that of a democracy.

The original rules governing the Electoral College voting system seemed to be logical and fair. The person with the most electoral votes, provided that it was an absolute majority (at least one over half of the total), became president. Unknown to most today, the rules also decreed that whoever obtained the next greatest number of electoral votes became vice president.

However, the presidential election held in 1800 upended that mandate due to a set of unforeseen circumstances. That election was also the forbearer of the dirty gutter politics to which we have unfortunately become not only accustomed, but apparently addicted as well. Next month’s issue will describe that, as well as the drive to dramatically change the Electoral College––without requiring a Constitutional amendment.

Author’s Correction: Last month’s article incorrectly cited Samuel J. Tilden, despite losing the popular vote, as the winner of the 1876 presidential election over Rutherford B. Hayes whereas it was the other way around. Terrible proof reading on my part.

Author’s Note: My thanks to Dr. Dan Fishkoff for suggesting this topic as the subject for this column.


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