Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by 2,900,000 popular votes and led him by 48% to 46%. However, Mr. Trump defeated Mrs. Clinton by 74 electoral votes, and those votes decide the presidency. Therein lies the dilemma of our second election crisis in sixteen years. It looks as though the will of the people will be thwarted for the fifth time in our history by a bizarre creation of our Founding Fathers that should have been dispensed with years ago – the Electoral College.
The main reason for the Founding Fathers’ creation of electors to pick the president was their fear of democracy. They were all students of ancient Greece and Rome, and it was the Roman Republic from which they based our constitutional system. They all understood from history how easily the masses could be influenced by a demagogue who is motivated by the acquisition of personal power and who appeals to popular passions and prejudices.
None of the Greek democracies survived. Athens achieved greatness for awhile until Alcibiades persuaded the populace to invade Sicily – it was a disaster, and the Athenians never recovered their previous stature. The ancient Romans replaced their monarchy with representative rule. The Roman Republic lasted 500 years until it was replaced by the Roman Empire, which lasted another 500 years. You can see why our founders liked the Romans so much.
Under the Roman name of Publius, Alexander Hamilton defended the Electoral College in Federalist #68: the people should only vote for local, rational, and well-informed electors whom they personally know and let them vote for the most qualified candidate – someone who is not a demagogue and someone who is experienced in public service. Today, there are obvious problems: how many voters know who their electors are, what do the electors really know, and are they more faithful to their party than to the nation?
This whole grand scheme collapsed as soon as political parties formed during George Washington’s first administration. Eventually, most electors were required by state laws to vote for the candidate of their own party regardless of who was the best candidate. Fortunately, in most elections, the electoral votes have by coincidence reflected the overall popular votes. The problem occurs whenever the people vote for one candidate and the electors vote for another.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore received 500,000 more votes than Republican George W. Bush. Forget the infamous Supreme Court ruling in which five Republican-appointed justices stopped the vote count in Florida. The electors knew the main reason that Mr. Bush got as many votes as he did was that he was more personable than Mr. Gore: his voters would rather have a beer with George at the end of the day than with Al. That’s not what the Founding Fathers considered a qualification for president. It was “party first, nation second.”
Earlier, in the Election of 1876, the outgoing Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant had been the most corrupt in American history up to that time and the ongoing impact of the Panic of 1873 was depressing wages and jobs, so the Democrat’s Samuel Tilden was expected to win. He did, in fact, win the popular vote, and it’s the historical consensus that he should have won the electoral vote as well. However, Republicans challenged the electoral votes of three states hoping to secure victory for their candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. An electoral commission was established to determine which sets of electoral votes to count and Hayes won. There were 8 Republican commissioners and 7 Democratic. It was “party first, nation second.”
Our Founding Fathers created a “Frankenstein’s Monster.” Historically, as with Tilden and Gore, our popular votes have made the democracy they feared actually look pretty good. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote in 1824 but didn’t win the electoral vote as well until 1828 and 1832. Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in 1884, 1888, and 1892, but lost the electoral vote in 1888. On the other hand, in spite of Hamilton’s assurances, at no time has the Electoral College ever served its purpose and come to our rescue.
And now in 2016, we have the clearest test ever of whether the Electoral College can do what it was created to do. Donald J. Trump is the most blatant demagogue ever nominated by a major American political party. Even prominent members of his own party realize he’s not fit to be president.
We know he’s a professional wrestler, a reality-TV performer, and a real estate developer; but what else is The Donald? We’ve come to know him as all the following: a pathological liar, a sociopath, a bully, a cheat, a bigot, a misogynist, a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, a con artist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a white supremacist, an ostentatious plutocrat, and a supporter of violence and/or threats against his critics.
Since Mr. Trump has 306 electoral votes and Mrs. Clinton has only 232, it would require 38 Republican electors to jump ship to give her the necessary 270 votes to win. That’s 38 “profiles in courage” that we’re probably not going to see. If we do see it, that would redeem the existence of the Electoral College – at least this one time.
There are some other solutions being bandied about as to how the electors can save the nation from the embarrassment and devastation of a Trump presidency, but none are good:
- Persuade 37 Republican electors to vote for Clinton, thus giving each candidate 269 votes. A tie would throw the election into the House of Representatives. The House had to decide the winners in 1800 and 1824 and made such a mess of it each time that we never want it to happen again. Can you imagine the “obstruct and sabotage” Republican House that we’ve had since the Elections of 2010 doing anything commendable for the nation? It would still be “party first, nation second.”
- Get all of Hillary’s electors and 38 of The Donald’s electors to vote for Mitt Romney as a compromise choice. However, Mitt Romney was soundly rejected by the voters in 2012, so they don’t want him. He even stayed out of this year’s primaries, and Trump supporters don’t like him because of his negative assessment of Trump. Also, if you disenfranchise all those who gave Hillary a 2 percent advantage over The Donald and give the presidency to someone none of the voters want, what’s that going to tell the people about the importance of their future votes?
The voters spoke on November 8. On December 19, the electors will speak. Will the electors do what Alexander Hamilton assured us and vote for the most qualified candidate? It matters. This must be someone who can be trusted with the future of life on earth: vigilant action against climate change and rational control of the nuclear codes and nuclear proliferation – issues Hamilton never could have imagined.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 10, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.