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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Saturday, November 07, 2020

A London View of the Electoral College Controversy

At the London School of Economics blog, Kyle Scott reviewed Prof. Alexander Keyssar’s new book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

Dr. Scott wrote:
Throughout the book, Keyssar draws upon congressional testimony, third party research and news accounts to debunk common objections to electoral college reform. Supporters of the Electoral College argue that its reform would abandon the ideals of the US founders, disadvantage smaller states, create a rural/urban divide in the electorate, disadvantage minorities living in poor urban communities and violate the republican (as opposed to democratic) ideals embodied in the US Constitution. States’ rights and federalism would also be threatened by electoral college reforms.

The author provides convincing counterexamples and enough evidence for the reader to conclude that, while reform would be a departure from the norm, it would be neither an unprecedented departure nor a stark break from the past. . . .

Seven of the seventeen amendments ratified after the Bill of Rights have increased representation and removed barriers between the populace and elected officials, and five of the seventeen have dealt directly with the office of the president. If we don’t count the 18th and 21st (concerning the prohibition of alcohol and its repeal, respectively), one-third of all amendments ratified after the Bill of Rights have dealt directly with the office of the president and more than a third have increased representation.

The reader is left to wonder what is unique about the Electoral College that separates it from amendments like Women’s Suffrage (19th), Direct Election of Senators (17th), Presidential Tenure (22nd) or Abolition of the Poll Tax Qualification in Federal Elections (24th). All these amendments were controversial and had to overcome entrenched interests — including those with racially discriminatory motivations — in order to be ratified.
While praising Keyssar for “original insight on how racism can be a motivating factor in preventing reform,” Scott concludes that it’s unfortunate that the book didn’t compare the stalled attempts to reform the Electoral College with the successful campaigns for those other amendments.

But I’m at a loss to think what “racially discriminatory motivations” drove opposition to the 22nd Amendment limiting Presidents to two terms in 1947 to 1951. Likewise, the 17th and 19th Amendments certainly increased representation, but within a system already permeated with racial discrimination.

It strikes me that the most fruitful comparisons would be to the 23rd Amendment, extending the Presidential vote to citizens in the District of Columbia (1960-1961, opposed in the Southeast), and the 24th Amendment, barring poll taxes (1962-1964, largely opposed in the Southeast). The former even had a direct effect on the Electoral College—but of course also worked within that system rather than making broader changes.


Contrarian View said...

That book is nonsense. The Founders knew exactly what they were doing in creating the Electoral College system. The 17th Amendment, pushed by the radical Progressive movement which swept the country during Wilson's time, was a deliberate abandonment of the concept of federalism and caused the destruction of the states as entities independent from the federal government. It was a plan to make the federal government supreme and the states merely administrative cogs in the great machine of national government. The original plan was for the federal government to be subordinate to the states and to the people. The 17th Amendment, by severing the relationship of senators to their state governments and making them loyal to their parties, was the key turning point in the creation of the leviathan horror show we have today.

J. L. Bell said...

To be contrarian myself:

1) It’s obvious you haven’t read this book you call “nonsense.” It’s an even call whether you read the review this blog post points to.

2) The men who created the Electoral College obviously didn’t know what they were doing since that’s the first part of the Constitution that had to be rewritten, after the awkward result of 1796 and the paralyzing result of 1800. None of the supposed representative benefits that defenders of the Electoral College tout today show up in the way proponents of the new federal Constitution argued for it, another indication that those men didn’t know how it would work in practice.

3) The Seventeenth Amendment was approved by the U.S. Congress in 1912, before Woodrow Wilson was elected, and ratified by the necessary thirty-sixth state in April 1913, after he had been in office a month. The measure had been proposed as far back as the 1820s and was regularly approved by the House starting in 1893. It’s historically myopic to link it to “Wilson’s time” in power.

4) By providing for direct election of senators, the Seventeenth Amendment strengthened the subordination of the federal government to the people in each state.

Finally, one has to wonder at the world-view that sees today’s representative politics as a “horror show” compared to Gilded Age America.