Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Electoral College Enigma – Part I

NOTE: When I think back to the Civics classes I took in the excellent public school system I was fortunate enough to attend, I must admit that I have no recollection of learning about the subject matter I write about below. I must concede however that those days are far, very far behind me, and I might have forgotten what I did learn then. But what induced me to cover the subject of the Electoral College is that the facts that relate to it, pro and con are both so compelling, it is difficult to establish definitively whether the Electoral College is an asset or an impediment to the voting process. It is also so complex that most Americans are not aware of how it came to influence the voting system that has evolved. That’s what we will evaluate here, and then it will be up to you to make that determination.

The following article is from the Washington Post:

You probably didn’t notice, but Sept. 17 was Constitution Day. What is that, you ask?

It’s a day that commemorates the signing of the final version of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, by 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention who created a new U.S. government — about which most Americans know embarrassingly little. Congress created Constitution Day in 2004, requiring all schools that receive federal funding to offer some type of “educational program” on the U.S. Constitution on or close to Sept. 17 every year.

A single day is not anywhere nearly enough — certainly not at a time when the country is facing ocean-deep political divisions and when the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has stoked racial fears and encouraged violence while displaying profound ignorance of how the government that he wants to lead works.

How little do Americans know about the workings of their own government? And does it really matter to the continued workings of that government?

A new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania finds that things are getting worse: Just a quarter of Americans in the nationally representative survey could name all three branches of government — the worst showing on that question in six years. And this is even worse: Nearly a third could not name a single branch of government.

Among the findings:

Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) incorrectly said that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. Just more than half (54 percent) knew that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.

In addition it seems like only eight states currently require schools to teach Civics.

I suspect that if I asked how many readers of this article knew why, how and when the Electoral College was formed, few would know the answers. Before you feel insulted, I’ll admit that before I did the research on that subject, I could not answer those questions. They are particularly pertinent since the results of our recent election became problematic when Hillary Clinton, the loser in the Electoral College won the popular vote by a record setting 2,865,075 votes.

In the 212 years since the 12 th amendment to the constitution firmly established the Electoral College, there have been only five occasions when the loser of the popular vote won the election based on the vote of the Electoral College. These election winners were John Quincy Adams in 1824; Rutherford B Hayes in 1876; Benjamin Harrison in 1888; George W. Bush in 2000; and Donald Trump in 2016. Are these anomalies really enough to abolish the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote, or are there other rational reasons to do so? That’s the enigma.

There are those [constructionists] that maintain that the Constitution is impermeable and should be interpreted only in its originalist form as initiated by the founding fathers. Okay…here are the views of some of our founders related to the Electoral College:
  • The present rule of voting for President…is so great a departure from the Republican principle of numerical equality…and is so pregnant also with a mischievous tendency in practice, that an amendment of the Constitution on this point is justly called for by all its considerate and best friends.
    --  Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, after surviving the first contingent election.  1823.
  • Can we forget for whom we are forming a government?  Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?
    -- James Madison to George Hay.  1823. 
  • It's a ridiculous setup, which thwarts the will of the majority, distorts presidential campaigning and has the potential to produce a true constitutional crisis…The majority does not rule, and every vote is not equal — those are reasons enough for scrapping the system.
    -- James Wilson, author of U.S. Constitution.  30 June 1787.
Here however, is a different view, one favoring the adoption of the Electoral College by the individual who created it:

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Men possessing “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” could be elected by the people [the popular vote]. But with the safeguard of “an intermediate body of electors,” comprised of “men most capable of analyzing the qualities” that would make a qualified president, candidates of “low intrigue” would be prevented from taking the country’s highest office.
-- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 68. March 12, 1788.

[I wonder whether Hamilton would be that sanguine about his “moral certainty” if he could review the results of the 2016 election.]

The method set out in the Constitution for electing the President reflected the belief of most of the members of the Convention “that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of President] and that a small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”

Except possibly in the first two presidential elections [George Washington’s] however, the electoral system has never worked in the manner anticipated by its authors.

The election of 1796 provided the first real test of the system. In the summer of that year a Federalist caucus agreed upon John Adams as the party's candidate for President and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for Vice President; a conference of Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr as the candidates of their party. The Constitutional Convention had contemplated no such development as the nomination of presidential candidates by political parties.

Nevertheless, based on the stringent qualifications for electors as emphasized by Hamilton himself, the critical facts above clearly indicate that the Founders required the electors to vote their conscience on an individual basis, without pledging to vote the party line, the system that is now obligatory. (See next month’s article for more.) Part of the enigma is the fact that political parties did not even exist at the time of the Convention, yet by the third election (after Washington retired) the party system was born.

In order to fully understand the rationale for the creation of the Electoral College, the historical context of the time should be explored.
  • The Founding Fathers faced the quandary of how to elect a president in a nation that: was composed of thirteen large and small States jealous of their own rights and powers and suspicious of any central national government.
  • The country contained only 4,000,000 people spread up and down a thousand miles of Atlantic seaboard barely connected by transportation or communication (so that national campaigns were impractical even if they had been thought desirable)
  • There was the belief that gentlemen should not campaign for public office (The saying was “The office should seek the man, the man should not seek the office.”).
  • Every one of the Founders believed, under the influence of such British political thinkers as Henry St. John Bolingbroke, that political parties were mischievous if not downright evil.
How, then, to choose a president without political parties, without national campaigns, and without upsetting the carefully designed balance between the presidency and the Congress on one hand and between the States and the federal government on the other?

There was, and still is, a great deal of controversy on the subject of political parties or “factions” as they were known to the Founders. In his farewell speech, George Washington stated, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

Washington’s comments typified the belief of all of the Founding Fathers, since political parties were considered quite dangerous. It was asserted the establishment of parties would be bad for Republican self-government because people could become more loyal to their party than to their country. [Sound familiar?] Moreover, people could become more concerned with the party's power rather than the common good. Founding Fathers such as James Madison knew that parties would develop, but establishing them at the birth of the new country would cause the factions to grow in power too rapidly, and possibly eventually form an oligarchical rule (rule of the few).

In a book published by the Springer Co., one chapter was titled “The Suspicion of Parties.” It read in part “Parties are ‘extralegal’; that is, their existence was not prescribed (or pro- scribed) by the writers of the Constitution. The Framers in Philadelphia never mentioned Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Federalists, Libertarians, Greens, or Anti-Masons.

“In the careful notes that Virginia delegate James Madison kept at the Philadelphia convention, there is no evidence that political parties were ever contemplated. The governmental structure that these men created was to be filled by regular elections, but nowhere in the Constitution or the convention in which it was composed is there so much as a jot or tittle that authorizes parties. The candidates who would run for the offices established in the Constitution were to be, presumably, men (and later women) of standing in their communities. They would present themselves for election, standing on character and general principles, and the voters would make their decision. The middleman – the party – was not necessary. It certainly was not provided for in the founding document.” Compare those thoughts to what we have now.

Next month we’ll delve into the pros and cons of the Electoral College.


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