My Turn: A big test for the Electoral College

  • A portrait of James Madison

For the Monitor
Published: 12/14/2016 12:10:12 AM

On Dec. 19, a group of citizens totaling 0.00017 percent of the American population will officially choose the next president of the United States. If the 538 members of the Electoral College are faithful to tradition, they will elect Donald Trump. If they are faithful to the framers of the Constitution, they will not.

Tradition says that pledged electors vote en masse for the presidential candidate who wins a plurality of votes in their state. By that logic, Trump, who won the toss-up states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by 1 percent to secure an Electoral College majority, will be our president.

It does not matter that Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump nationwide by 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent, a wider margin than roughly half a dozen elected presidents. It does not matter that Trump received a minority of ballots cast – 46 percent – and just one in four American citizens voted in his favor. It does not matter that he would be the first person to assume the office of president without any public service experience. All that matters, according to tradition, is that electors are automatically delivered to the winner of their state.

Our Founding Fathers did not agree with this tradition.

Reviewing the recorded statements of the framers of the Constitution, two factors emerge as central in the selection of president: majority rule and fitness for office.

According to James Madison, author of the Constitution, “the People at large (were) the fittest in itself . . . to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character.” Standing on the floor of the Constitutional Convention on July 19, 1787, Madison joined James Wilson and other delegates in supporting direct election of the president, but cautioned that slave states would never agree to an arrangement diminishing their power.

The resulting Electoral College compromise, contained in Article 2, Section 1, assumed that electors would be chosen by individual district to reflect the will of the nation at large. There would be no winner-take-all statewide slate.

In a letter to George Hay in 1823, Madison affirmed that “the district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted.” He considered the emerging practice of states assigning pre-pledged delegates as a general ticket to be so at odds with the Founders’ intentions that he endorsed a constitutional amendment to restore the “district mode.” Its aim, he concluded, was “having a President (be) the real choice of a majority of his Constituents (who) should inspire respect & acquiescence by qualifications.”

Alexander Hamilton agreed. Although criticized for his aristocratic tendencies, Hamilton believed a system could be devised that would respect the “the public will” while also ensuring that only highly qualified individuals could be elected president. Writing in Federalist 68 in 1787, Hamilton maintained that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the (president)” through the Electoral College, and stressed that electors should apply “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

Only when the people’s candidate did not possess “the requisite qualifications” for president, and was marked instead by “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” did Hamilton envision the Electoral College overruling the public will.

Like Madison, Hamilton took issue with states subverting the independence of electors to enhance their influence in presidential elections. His proposed constitutional amendment in 1802 would have prevented pre-pledged electors being automatically assigned to the winner of a state by establishing independent Electoral College districts – “a necessary safeguard in the choice of a President . . . against pernicious dissensions (and for) a full and fair expression of the public will.” It failed in an increasingly partisan political climate.

Nearly 2½ centuries after the nation’s founding, the Electoral College now faces its biggest test. Will a system expressly designed to confirm the public will and elect a highly qualified commander in chief instead elect a man who lost the popular vote and is considered by large majorities to be unfit for office? Will electors themselves follow a tradition never intended by the Founding Fathers, or will they join the 157 “faithless electors” in American history – and the American people at large – in rejecting a candidate notorious for “low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity?”

Although the outcome of this election is all but certain, the time is now for citizens to unite in overhauling the Electoral College to ensure that presidential elections reflect the will of the people.

(Daniel Weeks is the former Executive Director of Open Democracy and author of “Democracy in Poverty: A View From Below.”)

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