Amid petitions to either repeal the electoral college or for electors to reject their state’s popular vote, the 2016 election has made it clear, once again, that article 2, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution has been hijacked by the two-party system.
Today’s electoral college reminds me of an armchair (representative democracy) someone tried to convert into a rocking chair (direct democracy). Halfway through, they got distracted. The result? A chair teetering on two legs and a single rocker — rickety, uncomfortable and just plain wrong.
Let’s backtrack to what the original armchair looked like:
Each state got a certain number of electoral votes based on the number of politicians they have in the federal legislature (# of house representatives + 2 senators). On the presidential ballot, you’d be voting for electors, not necessarily candidates. These positions, separate from the house and the senate, would be short-lived; just a month later, sometime in December, electors would meet to decide the next president and vice-president and that would be that.
So under the original armchair model of the electoral college, your 2016 ballot would’ve looked something like this if you were voting in Alaska (1 house representative and 2 senators):
Vote for THREE:
- Candidate A
- Candidate B
- Candidate C
- Candidate D
- Candidate E
- Candidate F
The armchair was borne out of compromise. Some framers of our constitution wanted the president to be seated on a rocking chair, or by popular vote, while others wanted the president to be elected by Congress or governors (wooden church pew?). The latter, who agreed to settle for the electoral system, envisioned each state’s electors to act as an informed “committee” to pick the next president. They’d be policy whizzes, great readers of personal traits, in tune with the people’s interests and loyal to the basic criteria of what makes someone qualified to be commander-in-chief.
But this is how most ballots looked in November 2016:
Vote for ONE:
- Clinton and Kaine (Democratic)
- Johnson and Weld (Libertarian)
- Stein and Baraka (Green-Rainbow)
- Trump and Pence (Republican)
- Write-in candidates
Today, the task of electors is largely left up to political parties. They hire policy experts, consult research think-tanks and (sigh) lobbyists to pick a candidate and craft a platform they believe is best for the nation and will be supported by the party’s constituents. At the national conventions, not only is the presidential nominee and their running mate selected, but so are the 538 “hidden” electors you don’t see on today’s ballot. In most states, minus Nebraska and Maine, a vote for a major party candidate is essentially a vote for the entire bloc of electors in that state chosen by that candidate’s party. Given this winner-take-all scenario, it’s no surprise that presidential politics is a two-player game.
Since the founding of the college, 157 electors have gone against state voters. About half were faithless because the candidate they were slated to vote for died in the one-month span between the November election and the December convention date. But 82 chose to be faithless on their own accord; the most notable being 23 Virginia electors in the vice president pick during the election of 1836. Though this kind of “faithless” voting has never reversed the outcome of any U.S. election to date, this year could set a new precedent (because Trump’s nomination and election just wasn’t enough.)
Although a federal law to punish electors for failing to vote for their state’s popular choice would require a constitutional amendment, many states have passed their own laws to fine or nullify the votes of electors who are “faithless” to the popular vote. This, along with the two-party system, is responsible for today’s dysfunctional half-rocking armchair that seats our next President. It’s neither entirely faithful to the popular vote or to the electors job of “checking” it.
Here are three big reasons our founders created the electoral college in the first place:
1) Prevent the election of a populist candidate who caters to tyranny and extreme political views
In the Federalist papers, John Adams argued it was human nature for people to resist governance. Democracy is dangerous because it gives people the right to pick their rulers when they inherently cringe at the thought of being ruled. Furthermore, Adams claimed the crowd-rallying power of extreme factions made it unlikely for centrist candidates to win the popular vote, despite their level-headed platform to unite the country through compromise. And as we saw in this year’s election, lukewarm policies elicit lukewarm voting patterns while extreme positions inspire populist excitement and passion to get to the polls.
2) Balance of power between big and little states (aka our country is too big and different to rule with popular vote)
The electoral system forces candidates to consider the interests of voters in rural, less-populated states by making their votes “worth” more than a voter in a more populous state. But these bigger states also get a bigger overall chunk of electors in the college vote — it’s a brilliant way to balance any one state’s influence on the election in a nation with that has so much geographic, demographic and cultural diversity.
3) The average Jane or Joe doesn’t have the time or knowledge to vet the best candidate for the most important job in the country.
This one, from Alexander Hamilton (!), we’ve heard a million times over. But technology and media has made it easier for citizens to be better informed about the candidates, their history, and their platforms than was feasible in the late 18th century. The American people are no longer too dumb and lazy to select their leader through a good old popular vote. But the election of Donald Trump, a man with zero political background or realistic policy ideas, and the role of the media in this outcome suggests otherwise…
In short, the framers built an armchair, instead of a rocking chair to protect against a populist outsider like Trump from wreaking havoc in Washington. The full rocking chair model, electing the president and vice-president through direct popular vote, was seen as too risky.
Whether you think that was a good idea or not is up for debate, but it’s beyond debate that Donald Trump is less qualified and less experienced than Hillary Clinton to work in the Oval Office (though I heard he wants to move the president’s HQ to Trump Tower).
HRC has served as the first lady, was a long-time New York senator and served as secretary of state for the Obama administration. Donald Trump ran on the fumes of an angry and fed-up populace characterized as “anti-establishment,” rallying behind his extreme social positions and unrealistic policy “solutions” like a trade war with China or building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it.
To prevent our federal government from collapsing under the weight of someone so unfit to serve as president, our founding fathers created the stable armchair model. If the electoral college was to function as it was intended by the Constitution’s framers, the electors would put Clinton in office regardless of the popular vote. Giving electors the freedom to do their job, to act as a check on the popular vote, would essentially be retrofitting the half-rocker back to its original form — a functional and comfy armchair with a little wiggle room for direct democracy’s missteps.
But while political parties continue to fight over upgrading it, retrofitting it or burning it altogether in favor of a popular vote, we’re all sitting in these ridiculous chairs, praying this next presidency won’t tip us over.