A recent column in the Dearborn County Register ably explained that the Electoral College serves the “federal” character of our constitutional, federal republic. With direct election of presidents, the influence of most of the states would be dwarfed by the huge populations of New York, California and the like. The Electoral College, even as it now stands, makes the votes of smaller states something to be reckoned with. We are still a federation of states, not just a monolithic nation.
In my last column, I made a defense of the Electoral College concept based on the republican convictions of the Framers of our Constitution. They believed that the people should elect trusted representatives (electors) who would be able to take the time to study the candidates carefully before voting. This was supposed to lead to better quality presidents. Presumably a serious elector would consider the character and philosophy of candidates, and not be swayed by his physical attractiveness, television presence or other trivial factors.
Unfortunately, something has happened to spoil the effectiveness of the Electoral College as a republican institution. We have elected presidents of such low character that we wouldn’t associate with them at a personal level even if we could. I don’t think there has been an election during my lifetime when the choice was something more than “the lesser of two evils.” The Electoral College should be able to help with this. Why hasn’t it?
I’m convinced that the reason for this disappointing result is the states’ democratic approach to their role in the electoral process. In Indiana, for example, state law prohibits the names of electors from appearing on the ballot. Instead, the people vote for an entire slate of electors who are committed to a particular candidate. In effect, the states have converted the republican institution of the Electoral College into a democratic, direct election system. We vote based on the disinformation presented to us in political ads and slanted television news coverage. We cast our votes like gamblers casting dice, hoping that we guessed the right number.
If the process is to be fixed, it needs to happen in the states. Some state has to be the first to reform its electoral system; why not our own state of Indiana? The Constitution leaves it to each state’s legislature to determine how its electors will be chosen. Federal law specifies only the day on which they are to be chosen. I offer here a starting point for discussion of how to set up Indiana’s method of choosing electors.
We should be voting for people that we can know well enough to entrust them with our presidential votes. Since each state has the same number of electors as it has representatives plus senators, each elector represents a large number of voters. We need to scale this down to a more personal level. We could do this by establishing a two-tier system. Each elector would be selected by, for example, a hundred directly elected sub-electors. We could vote for these people in the primary election.
After the primary, the sub-electors could have meetings to get to know each other and their political principles. On national election day, the sub-electors would choose one of their own number to be the elector for the congressional district. The two electors representing the entire state could be chosen by the state legislature, or by a statewide vote of the people.
After the national election day, the state’s electors would meet periodically with the presidential candidates. The small numbers of people involved would make it possible for in-depth questioning of each candidate. Each elector would get to know each candidate’s character and political principles well enough to cast an informed vote.
When all of the electors finally meet to vote for the president, none would be bound to vote for any particular candidate. Third party candidates would have as much chance for an elector’s vote as the major party candidates. At this point there could be a winner-take-all voting process (which would give the state as a whole the most political influence) or one in which each elector’s vote is submitted to the national election independently.
The result of instituting such a system in Indiana would be a completely different style of campaigning. Sub-electors would be the only people appealing directly to the voters. Since each one would represent a relatively small area and number of voters, it would be entirely possible for anyone who wanted to really get to know the sub-elector candidate to do so. There would be too many candidates for the mass lying tactics that prevail today to have effect. The television networks can cover only so many electoral races, after all.
The next state legislative session would be a good time to start debating a system such as this for choosing presidential electors. If we start the ball rolling in Indiana, maybe we could get the whole nation’s electoral system straightened out.