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.