Prior to December 19, the big question was whether or not the Electoral College would justify its existence, do its job, and save the nation from having an unqualified demagogue as our next president. Well, the day came and the electors did exactly what we knew they would do – they blew it.
Now, the question is whether or not anything can be done to prevent another disaster like this one. The answer is probably no, but we need to look at the possibilities – one of which may work.
The prevailing defense of preserving the Electoral College is that it gives the voters in less-densely-populated states greater voices than the individual voters in the more-densely-populated states. This, of course, doesn’t sound like a very noble defense – especially in a nation that prides itself on being a “democracy” and believing in “one person, one vote.”
Unfortunately, each elector does not represent the same number of people. In California, each elector represents 713,637 residents. However, in Wyoming, each elector represents only 195,167 residents. In other words, your vote in Wyoming is worth 3 to 4 votes, while your vote in California is worth exactly 1 vote. This is the closest thing we have to “voter fraud” in the USA, but it’s constitutionally sanctioned – so much for our myths of “democracy” and “justice for all.”
The number of electors for each state is based on 2 senators plus the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives. So you can see why few if any small states, population-wise, would ever agree to a constitutional amendment that would end the Electoral College or change its membership to be based solely on each state’s population. It takes three fourths of state legislatures to ratify an amendment. Self-interest will “trump” the good of the nation just about every time.
The worst defense I’ve heard or read for preserving the Electoral College came in an editorial from my own statewide newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: It’s in the U.S. Constitution, so leave it there. That would make sense if it were not a flaw in the Constitution, but it is a flaw, an embarrassing one, and it needs to be changed. There are precedents for this. The Constitution recognized slavery and counted a slave as three fifths of a man, but we changed that with the 13th and 14th amendments. The Constitution, while a great document, was never perceived, even by its Founders, as being perfect.
The Election of 1800 made it clear that there was a problem with the Electoral College, and it should have been done away with at that time. The problem was that the Founding Fathers did not anticipate the formation of political parties, which nullified any future chance for the Electoral College to function as intended – to protect the nation from a demagogue who seeks power by appealing to people’s emotions and prejudices.
In 1800, the electors were faced, for the second time, with presidential candidates who had vice-presidential running mates, but they were still listed separately. Consequently, to prevent the error of 1796 when the two with the most votes were from opposite parties (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson), this time they gave the same number of votes to Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr. Unfortunately, this made it an official tie for president, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The House was temporarily still controlled by the Federalist Party, which strongly hated Jefferson.
The House Federalists ignored the good of the nation and planned to pick Burr so as to sabotage Jefferson’s party, which was a forerunner to today’s Democratic Party. This horrified Alexander Hamilton, a political opponent of Jefferson. Nevertheless, he respected Jefferson and knew that he would do whatever was needed to make the nation succeed. On the other hand, he considered Burr to be a demagogue and “voluptuary,” a person addicted to luxury and pleasures of the senses. Hamilton eventually succeeded in persuading just enough Federalists to abandon party loyalty and vote for Jefferson.
The 12th Amendment resolved the problem of the intentions of the electors: each elector now casts two separate votes – one specifically for president and one specifically for vice president. But nothing was done concerning electors or members of the House casting their votes based on party loyalty rather than the good of the republic. The problem was obvious in 1800 – as it was in 1876, 1888, and 2000 – and even more so today. Remember, there’s no Hamilton around to restore sense and sensibility.
A good solution to the potentially recurring problem of having a president elected by fewer votes than his nearest opponent is the National Popular Vote bill that can be passed on the state level. Here’s the way it works: According to the Constitution, each state determines how its electors are chosen and what directives are given to them; therefore each state can require its electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, and that’s what this bill does.
As soon as the bill passes in enough states to equal 270 electoral votes, the bill will go into effect in all those states. It’s already been passed in 10 states and the District of Columbia with 165 electoral votes. That leaves an additional 105 votes needed, and half the legislative bodies in 12 other states have approved the bill. In the United States of America, it should be embarrassing for any state legislator to admit that he doesn’t believe that the candidate with the most votes should win.
The Electoral College’s votes in 2000 and 2016 were not just undemocratic – they were also contradictory to what we claim to stand for in foreign policy. I was amused at how proudly President George W. Bush bragged about how Iraqis were finally able to vote after the fall of Saddam Hussein. I’m sure the irony was not missed by Mr. Bush himself. The majority vote in his own ascendency to the presidency in 2000 had gone to his opponent Al Gore. The U. S. Supreme Court even ordered the vote count to stop in Florida. He was a product of how democracy can go wrong, but I’m sure he didn’t want the Iraqi voters to know that.
Whoever the electors are, they made it abundantly clear in mid-December that they are as equally wise or unwise, informed or uninformed as the voters who unwittingly elected them. They are merely apparatchiks who care more for their party than the nation. The Electoral College, for the second time in 16 years, has proved itself nothing more than a bad joke on democracy. It can be reformed by the National Popular Vote bill, which needs to go into effect before the next presidential election.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published January 7, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.