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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Friday, September 29, 2017

The Dangers of the Electoral College

At Politico, Matthew Olsen and Benjamin Haas published an essay titled “The Electoral College Is a National Security Threat”:
In Federalist No. 68, his pseudonymous essay on “The Mode of Electing the President,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College could shield the United States “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Because of the “transient existence” and dispersed makeup of the electors, he argued, hostile countries would find it too expensive and time-consuming to inject “sinister bias” into the process of choosing a president. . . .

In Hamilton’s day, as he argued, it would have been nearly impossible for a hostile power to co-opt dozens of briefly chosen electors flung across 13 states with primitive roads. But in the social media age, the Electoral College system provides ripe microtargeting grounds for foreign actors who intend to sabotage presidential elections via information and disinformation campaigns, as well as by hacking our voting infrastructure. One reason is that citizens in certain states simply have more voting power than citizens in other states, such as Texas and California. This makes it easier for malign outside forces to direct their efforts.

But what if the national popular vote determined the president instead of the Electoral College? No voter would be more electorally powerful than another. It would be more difficult for a foreign entity to sway many millions of voters scattered across the country than concentrated groups of tens of thousands of voters in just a few states. And it would be more difficult to tamper with voting systems on a nationwide basis than to hack into a handful of databases in crucial swing districts, which could alter an election’s outcome. Yes, a foreign entity could disseminate messages to major cities across the entire country or try to carry out a broad-based cyberattack, but widespread actions of this sort would be not only more resource-intensive, but also more easily noticed, exposed and addressed.
As practical as those arguments are, I think there’s a clearer way that the Electoral College weakens the American republic. Our democratic system is based on what the Declaration of Independence called “the consent of the governed.” That requires every person’s vote to be of equal weight and the aggregate votes to determine the winner.

Out of all the elections in America, only one is set up so that the person who has demonstrably less popular support than an opponent can take office. While that outcome is relatively rare, when it happens the government lacks the consent of the governed and thus the strength of democracy. Faith in the political system weakens, especially if the system offers no way to fix the problem.

Hamilton and his fellow Federalists also argued that the Constitution’s impeachment clause was an important protection for the republic. In Democracy, law professor Sanford Levinson recently discussed problems with how that’s worked out and proposed another approach:
What the United States Constitution needs, and unfortunately does not have, is a provision that allows Congress, by a two-thirds vote, to register their “no-confidence” in an incumbent President that would serve to fire him immediately, without needing a crime or an incapacity as justification. It would be enough to say basically that Congress, no doubt representing their constituents, had become terrified of the lack of judgment displayed by the President.

He or she would most likely be replaced by the Vice President. Even better would be the selection of the new President by the congressional caucus of the President’s own party, followed, perhaps, by a new presidential election the next time we elect members of the House and Senate. This would assure that an opposition party could take over the White House only by winning an election.
That’s a limited form of parliamentary government which would go some way toward making Congress the top branch of the U.S. government again, as the Framers imagined.


Doug Hudson said...

Of course, the system is also rigged so that there is no way a constitutional amendment to remove the electoral college (and/or reform the Senate) will pass--the smaller states will never voluntarily give up their power.

We need to dismantle the states first, and create new voting blocs that are more or less equal in population. That would solve the electoral college and Senate problems at the same time.
But of course that would require a constitutional convention, which opens a whole new can of worms. Still might be worth it, though.

Anonymous said...

This nation is set up as a republic, not as a democracy

J. L. Bell said...

Tell us, anonymous commenter, what the difference between a republic and a democracy is, and how a republic isn’t based on “the consent of the governed.”

Unknown said...

Hillary wins by over 1.2 votes with California.
Trump wins by over 2.1 million votes without Calfornia.
Kneel before California.
Didn't someone in the Federalist Papers worry over a Region dominating?
The Majority will always Intimidate, Inculcate, Assimilate.
So you want Popular vote?
What does that really mean?
You are converting 51 district majorities (States + DC)
into ONE Winner Take All DISTRICT -
Which is more "inclusive" ?.
You could convert 51 district majorities (States + DC)
into 538 smaller than state district majorities
which is 435 congressional districts +
50 states with 2 electors each + 3 for DC.
Which Map is More Inclusive?
Majority intimidation is limited by borders,
Borders allow like minded to congregate
Majorities will intimidate. Ever been in a committee?
Outlyers are demonized, repudiated.
This is what will happen with one big district.
Like Borg it will assimilate you.
You saw the Main Stream Press convince YOU.
it is why nationalism lives inside the EEU.
It is why England retains the pound and votes Brexit.
Why not be borderless? One world order?
One District. The Planet. Ask George Orwell.
And then Hillary winning? She's 48 percent. Trump 47.
Bill Clinton 43, then 48.
Most Presidents have been plurality winners, not a majority.
The combined majority voted against that president.
13 Presidents won a plurality - a combined majority voted against them-

J. L. Bell said...

Any argument that rests on disenfranchising 12% of a nation’s population simply because that region votes one way is inherently non-democratic. Any argument that treats a popular vote as “majority intimidation” is inherently non-democratic. Any argument that asks what a popular vote means as if there’s a complex answer is inherently non-democratic. Any argument that treats the popular vote as some exotic danger instead of the way we in the U.S. of A. decide every other type of election is inherently hypocritical.

To limit dominance by one region, the Framers required a President and Vice President to be from different states. For the next 35 years they and their contemporaries filled those offices with men from just three states: Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York. Meanwhile, the Electoral College gave extra power to states with large enslaved populations. Let’s just say Virginians didn’t worry about regional dominance then.

Unknown said...

Electoral College is essentially Winner Take All
(a few states have exceptions).
With Winner Take All in 50 States + DC
you have 51 elections
spread out through out the country.
This seems much more representative of the whole.
It seems to me that requiring
winning all around this nation
spread over 51 districts is fair.

But making 51 Winner take Districts
into one giant Winner Take All District
is less representative, less truthful
forcing more issues of secession.

Regionalism as an argument cannot be so
easily dismissed.

Think of the secessions and independence
movements around the world feeling
disenfranchised by being submerged
into a larger entity?

The Kurds? Catalonia. Scotland.
Quebec. The exits out of the EU.

Our 51 Winner take all
is far more representative and cohesive
than a Borg Like One Winner Take All District.

J. L. Bell said...

The Electoral College is not "winner take all" in (almost) every state per the Constitution. It became that way in the early republic as nascent political parties jockeyed for advantage, and most state laws keep it that way. That's one way the Electoral College never worked as the Framers at the Constitutional Convention imagined.

The Constitution distorts the popular vote in another way, by assigning each state the same number of electors as in the two houses of Congress, thus giving small-population states an advantage.

What other elections are conducted along the lines you suggest? Does any state assign each county a number of votes, winner-take-all? What about mayoral elections? Are you advocating for such a system at all levels? If not, that position appears more like an attempt to justify the flaws of the Electoral College rather than an argument for fairness. (It also strongly suggests that your preference prevailed in your state's Presidential vote but not in the nationwide popular vote.)

All the modern secession movements you list are driven by language and thus cultural differences, which don't apply here. (Interestingly, they don't include any of the actually successful secessions of recent decades, the ones that set up new nations.) The major secession movement in U.S. history arose in a region that enjoyed extra representation in Presidential elections because of the Electoral College and the three-fifths clause. Clearly that non-democratic distortion wasn't enough to stop those states from trying to secede.

The repeated use of the “Borg” metaphor for the side that wins the most votes in an election is yet another sign of simple dislike of democracy.