J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Keyssar on the Electoral College, 3 Nov.

On Thursday, 3 November, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host the Pauline Maier Memorial Lecture, named after the eminent and well-loved historian of early America who died in 2013.

This year’s talk is “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” by Alex Keyssar of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Every four years, millions of Americans find themselves asking why they choose their presidents through the peculiar mechanism called the Electoral College—an arcane institution that narrows election campaigns to swing states and can permit the loser of the popular vote to become president. It has had critics since the early 19th century. Over the years, Congress has considered hundreds of constitutional amendments aimed at transforming the system.
Harvard University Press has just published Keyssar’s book of the same title.

“Publius” essay number 58, written by Alexander Hamilton, laid out the Federalist case for Electors, but it wasn’t written to refute any particular argument. Hamilton began:
The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. . . .

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. 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 such complicated investigations.
However, within just a few years many states were requiring Electors not to deploy their “information and discernment” but to vote for whichever candidate had won in those states. And then the Twelfth Amendment ensured that the Electors wouldn’t all assemble for “deliberation”; each group was to meet in their own state. The original system never worked as the Framers hoped.

This event will start with a reception at 5:30 P.M., and Prof. Keyssar will speak at 6:30. It is free to M.H.S. Fellows and Members, $20 for others. Register here.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

I wonder what Scalia's take on our "declension" from the original intent of the Electoral College's function would be! Seems we've drifted pretty far from that original intent, albeit perhaps not far enough, if absolute majority rule in the case of Presidential selection is one's desired outcome.

J. L. Bell said...

Clarence Thomas is still an “originalist” voice on the Supreme Court. However, I think that approach acknowledges that Amendments to the Constitution are official revisions of its meaning—perhaps the only acceptable revisions. So the Twelfth, Fifteenth, and other Amendments relating to federal elections would be part of the originalist outlook.

I find it striking that the Declaration of Independence states as a fundamental principle that governments gain legitimacy by “deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed,” yet we’re stuck with a system that every so often produces an outcome demonstrably contrary to that consent.

James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris both advocated for direct election of the President by a majority of voters, so the Framers didn’t find that idea ridiculous. James Madison and other delegates from slavery-dependent states argued for an Electoral College that reflected the representation of states in the new Congress, thus giving more power to voters in areas with more enslaved people. Even then, I don’t think they expected the system could award the Presidency to someone who was clearly not the choice of most of the governed.

toto said...

Massachusetts has enacted the National Popular Vote bill.

It is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
No more handful of 'battleground' states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states, like Massachusetts, that have just been 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


J. L. Bell said...

This blog had postings on the National Popular Vote approach in 2008 and 2012. It looks like the best chance of a fix.