So it appears that the Democrat presidential primary is
going to include more than just a competition amongst the candidates to see who
holds Vice President Mike Pence in greater contempt. It will also involve a stirring debate over
the abolition of one of the integral elements to our constitutional order and
system: the Electoral College.
First, I can’t help but note the obvious irony present when
a group of individuals livid over how President Donald Trump is “shredding the Constitution,” talk freely and openly about their desire to obliterate one
of the most recognizable features of the document.
Second, I can’t think – even with as clueless as so many
people are these days about our foundations – that the effort will go
anywhere. It will no doubt be a major
talking point, much like the impeachment of Trump was in the 2018
midterms. Impeachment talk eventually
met the cold reality of pragmatic vote counting – the Democrats didn’t have
them. And abolishing the Electoral
College would require a constitutional amendment. That means 2/3rds of both houses of Congress,
followed by ratification in 3/4 of state legislatures, many of whom would have
to vote against sustaining their only voice in presidential politics.
So why even waste the time talking about it? Because it irks me. In the midst of our “everything from our past is antiquated, bigoted, immoral, unsophisticated, dumb and needs to be destroyed” era, I get really annoyed at people substituting their passion for intelligence, their hot takes for enlightened thought. After all, Alexander Hamilton is one of the most brilliant political minds in history. He wrote in Federalist #68 of this electoral mode of selecting a chief executive,
“I…hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for.”
He outlines in detail why he has come to such a conclusion,
and as can be expected, his arguments are persuasive. But few people care about, no less know
about, the rationale behind the system.
All they know is that the person they wanted to win the election didn’t,
and so something has to be done to make sure that doesn’t ever happen
again. What a spoiled and
unsophisticated way of thinking.
For what it’s worth, this is why every year I require my
high school government students to read and discuss Federalist #68. Regardless of who they want to win the next
election, and even if they ultimately choose not to agree with the Founders’
logic, I want them to at least understand it.
Heaven knows they won’t ever be treated to an elucidation of the finer
points of the system on a BuzzFeed Snapchat feature.
Suffice it to say, there are three primary reasons the
system must remain (though admittedly I would greatly prefer we should return
to the pure operation of its intent rather than the watered down version we
1. It maintains federalism.
By design, “the people” were never to select the president. The office was to be filled by a collective
expression of state and regional interests.
Hamilton wrote specifically that the selection of the chief magistrate
of the federal government should not be turned into a popularity contest, lest
the qualities of that magistrate become something entirely different than what
the country needs and should desire.
2. It prevents rampant fraud and stolen elections. People desiring a national popular vote
should consider what the endless string of national popular recounts would look
like. By allowing the states to certify
their own results, the Electoral College offers, as Hamilton put it, “as little
opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.”
3. It eliminates sectional monopoly over the
presidency. Imagine a presidential
contest where the participants need only appeal to the interests of urban
population centers and metropolitan strips.
The House of Representatives was established to represent the people’s
local interests, the Senate to represent the people’s state interests, and the
presidency to represent the national interest.
The values and concerns of urban centers are a portion of our national
interest, no doubt. But so are the
affairs of rural neighborhoods, factory towns, mining communities, coastal port
cities, agrarian farms, and all the others.
Don’t forget that the Electoral College is proportional. California is a far bigger prize than North Dakota. But the system ensures that California isn’t the only prize that’s needed; its citizens’ interests aren’t the only ones represented. And remember this is no unexpected development. This isn’t something that the Founders failed to consider or anticipate. In fact, this reality was every bit as much of a factor in their time as ours. They had their own urban areas, and population centers, but knew the president needed to concern himself with the interests of far more areas of the country than those. That’s the purpose of the Electoral College.
Hamilton presciently wrote in #68 that the Electoral College
was meant to deny the presidency to candidates who possessed merely,
“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”
It should come as no surprise then that it’s those very kind
of candidates today who are so vocal in their efforts to abolish the system.