Category Archives: Electoral College

Let Indiana Lead the Way on Electoral Reform

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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.

Renewed Pressure on the Electoral System

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The cliffhanger presidential election has people talking again about our “antiquated and undemocratic” Electoral College system. As I write, nobody knows who won the election, but there is a strong possibility that it wasn’t the winner of the popular vote. Many believe that the popular vote should elect the president, and that the Electoral College should be abolished.

Is the system antiquated? No argument there; it’s as old as our Constitution, where it was instituted. That in itself is no mark against the system. There are lots of antiquated features of the Constitution that most of us want to keep, starting with the Bill of Rights.

Is the system undemocratic? I won’t object to that term either: the system was intentionally designed to be undemocratic. After all, our nation is a constitutional, federal republic, which is not the same as a democracy. Our nation’s founders had a hearty disdain for democracy, based on their knowledge of history and human nature.

James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, noted during the debate over ratification that “…democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Founder John Adams reminded us to “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The word “democracy” is not to be found in any of our founding documents: the Constitution, Declaration of Independence or any other. In contrast the Constitution, in Article IV, requires that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…”

In such a government the people elect those whom they know and trust to represent them. Those representatives do the homework necessary to make decisions on complex issues. If the people become dissatisfied with those decisions, they can change representatives; but they don’t vote directly on the issues.

The Electoral College was an attempt to build into the presidential election some of the republican character that permeates the design of the Constitution. The Framers intended that voters would choose wise electors to select the president and vice president. Few believed that the average person would learn enough about the candidates to make an informed choice, or would base such a choice on reason rather than passion.

Alexander Hamilton, writing in support of the Electoral College in The Federalist No. 68, argued that “It is 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 …. 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 so complicated an investigation.”

As the quality of our presidential candidates continues to degrade along with the people’s knowledge of our nation’s history and founding principles, doesn’t the Founders’ vision seem even more compelling today? We need to recreate the Electoral College to be the republican institution that it was designed to be. We certainly don’t need to replace it with an even more democratic system.

Exploring the Constitution, Part 11: The Electoral College

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In the last installment of the series on the Constitution, we took a general look at Article II, which defines the executive branch of our government. One controversial creation of Article II is the mechanism for electing the President and Vice President: the Electoral College. Is this a useless artifact of eighteenth century political experimentation, or does it have a worthwhile function today? I will try to convince you that a rejuvenated Electoral College is just what we need to improve our presidential selection process.

Think about what is wrong with the way we elect presidents today. The political parties, unions, corporations, PACs and other interest groups spend millions of dollars bombarding the public with emotional propaganda, appealing to whatever instincts, high or low, they think will influence the vote. For a year preceding the election, we live in a polluted atmosphere as the candidates try to discredit one another. The voters make their choice based on hatreds generated by the campaign advertising, promises of federal favoritism for the various interest groups, how well or badly someone comes across on television, even the candidate’s physical attractiveness to voters of the opposite sex. The result has been an unbroken string of poor choices from early in our century to the felonious first family which currently occupies the White House.

What if we could choose from our own vicinity a few people that we trust to represent us in a presidential selection process? These would be people who had the time and responsibility to study the candidates carefully. Since they would be few in number, it wouldn’t make sense for anyone to spend millions to influence their actions. Since they would be a temporary body, they would not be in office long enough for anyone to cultivate them through bribery or other forms of corruption. Presumably we would be able to find electors who would be above the influence of physical attractiveness or other trivial factors.

If we had what I just described, we would be fulfilling the vision of those who designed the Electoral College and wrote it into the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton devoted an entire article of The Federalist Papers to extolling those features of the proposed presidential election system. When he wrote in 1788, even though the new Constitution was under attack on many fronts, the Electoral College was “almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure…” The advantages were so obvious to the people of that day that no one objected to the proposal.

What happened between then and now? Why do we hear about fears of “stolen” elections, in which a candidate wins election with electoral votes, while falling short in the popular vote? Why hasn’t the Electoral College had the effect intended by the Founding Fathers? We see all of the ills today that the system was designed to combat: hysterical, demagogic campaigning; elections being corrupted with foreign money; candidates being rejected for trivial reasons, while others are elected in spite of what ought to be terminal character flaws.

You probably expect to hear me say that the federal government has twisted the system beyond all recognition, as they have so much of the rest of our Constitution. That is indeed what I expected to find when I did the research for this column. Instead, I found that Congress’ role in this has followed the Constitutional mandate faithfully. They have set the days for electors to be selected and to cast their votes, and the rules for counting the votes. The manner of choosing the electors they have left to the individual state legislatures, as specified in the Constitution. Look it up in the US Code, Title 3, Chapter 1 (you can find it on the internet if you are curious).

Since the problem isn’t with the federal government, it must be with the state legislatures. Indiana has a typical electoral system, so I checked our state code at Title 3, Article 10, Chapter 4. There it was, as plain as day in Section 1: “The names of candidates…for electors of President and Vice President of the United States may not be placed on the ballot.” Instead, the names of nominees for those offices are to appear on the ballot. Section 4 clinches it with the statement that “Each vote…for the nominees for President and Vice President…of a political party…is a vote…for all of the candidates for presidential electors of the party…” There we have the exact reverse of the intent of the Framers of the Constitution when they designed the Electoral College. It reduces the role of an elector to that of a figurehead; just another layer of bureaucracy between the people and their government.

The solution to the mess that our presidential election system has become is not campaign finance reform, mandated free TV time for candidates, etc. It is for each state legislature to revive the Electoral College as a fully functioning part of the electoral process. Remove the names of presidential candidates from the ballot, and replace them with the names of candidates for the important office of presidential elector. Then take advantage of modern communication technology to give the electors the tools to learn in detail what every candidate stands for, in the weeks between the day of their election and the day on which they cast their votes for a presidential candidate. The result will be the election of a better grade of presidents than we have seen for most of this century.