Lets Make Some Technical Changes in Our Presidential Elections

No I’m not going to talk about finance reform (another day). I’m talking about more technical changes, ones which would improve our election process in an entirely non-partisan way.

The recent game of leap-frog among the states in scheduling their state caucuses is ridiculous. What we need is a national primary day. This tradition of individual dates gives far too much influence to a few states with the early vote (New Hampshire, Ohio, S. Carolina). It discourages voting in the late states. And the continued effort by the individual states to maintain their primacy is going to eventually cause primaries to move into the prior year (2007 for this election). We should end this silliness by having all voters enter their selection on the same day. In addition to leveling the playing field among both states and candidates, it will provide the pleasant benefit of shortening the interminable season of primary campaigning.

While we’re talking about pie-in-the-sky reforms, lets talk about the electoral college. It never ceases to astound me that amendments completely incompatible with our national and religious principles (the Marriage Amendment, Orrin Hatch’s pet Flag Burning Amendment) repeatedly get enough traction to be proposed and debated on the national scene. But a common-sense, nuts-and-bolts amendment such as an amendment to abolish the use of electors and make the presidential election a truly democratically-elected position rarely makes any headway.

The electoral college is a historical antiquity. It is the primarily the result of four conditions: Revolutionary-era communication and travel challenges, emphasis on the states over the general public by Revolutionary leaders, a skepticism of the competence of the masses to make informed decisions among the political class of the time, and slavery. None still apply to us today.

At the time the Constitution was written, travel was slow and vulnerable to the weather. It could easily take days or even weeks to travel to their state capitols, let alone a national capitol. People at the time might well have found it unreasonable to expect to wait for weeks on end for the results of an election. With modern transportation and communications technologies, this issue is now irrelevant.

Communications also played a role in the second issue. There was perhaps some cause for incredulity among the political class about the awareness of the masses. No doubt prejudice and pride both played a role among many of the optimates. But the limited reach and scope of contemporary media, as well as the illiteracy (far more pervasive than today), did indeed mean that the average citizen had fewer opportunities to become informed about the issues and candidates of the day. But the theory that the average citizen does not have the right nor capacity to have a voice in governance is widely rejected in modern U.S. political thought, and the vast majority of the public now has access to information with which to guide that voice. We don’t need intermediaries to make that choice for us.

For many of the men involved (though certainly not all) in the Constitutional debates, the issue had little to do with “the people.” In their consideration, the issue was an agreement between the states, political entities sovereign themselves. Representation of the will of the state was what mattered. The people as individuals mattered only indirectly. For this purpose, they forced a compromise onto the Constitution which required equal representation for the states in the Senate, and election of those Senators by the state legislatures. And for that purpose, they also denied direct election of the President. They preferred a system by which electors made the selection—electors typically chosen in the nation’s early years by state leaders or state legislatures, and in numbers which gave influence to small states disproportionate to their populations. Few anymore see the nation as a compact between states, but rather as an agreement between the individuals which comprise the citizenry. We are “Americans” first, Utahns (or Virginians, or Hawaiians, etc) second. Why then should we maintain a vestige of this elitism and exclusion?

The last cause for the use of electors is the least discussed, and the most insidious. During the gestation of the new nation, the political class in the South viewed any talk of a national government with a wary eye. It was no secret that slavery was increasingly viewed as a moral outrage in the North. They saw that most of the activists were not satisfied to abolish the practice in their own communities and states. And so the advocates of slavery in the South exacted some consequential compromises for their continued participation and endorsement of the Constitution. The Three-Fifths Compromise is notorious among these for counting part of each slave for the purpose of congressional representation purposes; the slave states would have legislative power disproportionate to their voting population. With this added power, the slave states were better able to defend their “peculiar institution.”

What is often overlooked is that this gave them an even more disproportionate voice in the election of the President as well, and thus the ability to better assure themselves a Champion in the executive branch as well. It is hardly coincidental that five of the first seven presidents were slaveowners and defenders of the status quo at the federal level. It was only the rapid population growth among the North which slowly eroded the dominance of the South in national politics.

None of the original grounds for the electors and indirect election of the President have any real validity in our nation today (and one is both entirely superfluous and patently offensive). Regardless of our political ideology, we overwhelmingly value the principles of a liberal democracy. We believe in universal suffrage and proportional enfranchisement (“one person, one vote”). To continue to rely on a system which grants unequal clout to votes depending on one’s state is absurd. Likewise a system which renders the minority’s vote impotent, as is the case in the “winner-takes-all” elector apportionment used in most states.

The Constitutional Convention created provisions for amendment for a purpose: so that future generations could see what was ineffective, what was no longer relevant to their times, and could modify, replace, or eliminate those aspects. Surely the indirect election of the President has outlived what legitimate purposes it once maintained. It serves no more purpose than one’s appendix—and has the potential to cause not much less grief to the body politic. Best we amputate now and adopt a system of presidential election more compatible with the democratic principles we hold dear.

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9 Responses to “Lets Make Some Technical Changes in Our Presidential Elections”

  1. Misty Fowler Says:

    I agree. I just don’t know what to do about it. But, personally, if I could only change one thing about our government, and the choice would be hard, I admit, that thing would be to abolish the Electoral College so that every American’s vote for their president would count. Even here in Utah.

  2. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Amen, amen, amen, brother. It’s been a long time in coming, but you are 1000 percent right on this. Statistically impossible, but I am so glad to see someone with me on this issue (both of them).

    Only in America would this ever become an issue. Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that are rarely national players, have absolutely no reason to get this unfair advantage, and the only reason anyone would defend it is because it’s such a long tradition, almost as absurd as the tradition in the 1950s short story “The Lottery”. A national primary day would make sense on so many levels.

    And double my enthusiasm for a popular vote, for goodness’ sake. No hanging, dimpled, or drooping chads, and Gore wins the White House (which is nothing to be that excited about, especially back in 2000 before he inexplicably developed a personality, but fair is fair). I was just lamenting this with a friend at lunch today. It sucks enough to live in a state where voting for a non-incumbent senator or representative is an exercise in futility, but to have to deal with it on a national level is inexcusable. Want to cast your dissenting vote? Okay, but it stops here and your whole state goes to Bush. What the hell? How do I explain this to my kids? And how do I tell them with a straight face that their votes make a difference?

    Derek, run for office on this, and I’ll contribute to your campaign, even if you are a socialist, hippie apologist. I think it would be hilarious to get you on the hill just to see the expression on Buttars’ face.

  3. jared Says:

    popular vote only matters in voting for the local sheriff anymore at least it only seems that way.

    Unfortunately here in Idaho the buck stops in Ada county which is the Boise metroplex area, anything East of there and you’ll never have you’re voice heard. We have a whole 4 votes for the electoral college and about 1.2 million here in pop. not a whole lot to shout about either way.

    As far as the electoral college goes compared to popular vote it’s a stale mate because most of the votes come from the most densley populated states such as Cali, Texas,New Yuck, Floriduh etc.

  4. Aaron Orgill Says:

    It is not a stalemate. Tell me how it makes sense that if 600,000 voters go with Bush and 450,000 with Kerry, every single electoral vote goes to Bush. You live in a highly Republican state. No vote you ever cast will truly be counted, short of Bush being proven guilty of planning 9/11 (or possibly, having sex with an intern).

  5. jennifer Says:

    Good points Derek… I find myself taking long deep breaths during those read-aloud letters at church which encourage people to vote for candidates and parties of their choice…. I feel that local elections are the only ones that I can influence with my little ballot – the national ones have little to do with UT voters, apparently…. Ironically, it seems that many people show little interest in the routine annual elections but get all worked up about the presidential election (hype)….I have voted in presidential primaries, and am looking forward to this opportunity again, only an earlier date this year.

  6. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Yes, it’s ironic, isn’t it? The national election is so much sexier, yet due to the current system no Utahn can make a difference, and any Republican presidential candidate can count on our 5 electoral votes as a given, even when we go to war pre-emptively. Unless they have sex with an intern.

  7. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Jared, of course the more populous communities and regions would have a greater say in a direct election. That is what democracy means. “One vote per person,” not “one vote per acre.” If there are more citizens overall in the nation that support one candidate than the other, that candidate should be elected, regardless of the demographic distribution of those citizens. States and cities as a unit should be irrelevant.

  8. Marj Says:

    I’m not a Utah resident – or a Mormon, but found your blog when I google “national election primary day?”

    I agree with everything you layed out about why the founding fathers made the decisions they made and also think it’s time for a change.

    I’m reading “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution”. It was all about the role of the states (small/large, north/south, slave holding/anti-slavery) vis-a-vis the proposed concept of a centralized, national government and the power that state or national government would wield.

    By the way, women could vote, IN NEW JERSEY from 1776-1807, and then not again until WYOMING (followed by other Western States) gave women the right to vote in 1869. While the 15th ammendment to the constitution in that year gave the vote to minority (black) men, women couldn’t vote universally until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920.

    So, yes, I think we need a change; one that would put the power of the vote in the hands of the voters — not in the states or the electoral college . . . and we should start with a national primary day! I live (and vote) in MA. Why should Iowa or NH or NV or SC or OH or MI or CA determine who the candidate for my party will be? The candidates need to pay attention to ALL the states . . . and all the voters.

    If George W. Bush can peddle democracy around the world as “1 person/1 vote”, I think he should begin at home with that principle . . . oops, it would have cost him the election in 2000, since Al Gore won the “popular” vote!

  9. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Welcome, Marj. I embrace participation by people of all regions and faiths, so long as they understand that I will often discuss issues and events particular to Utah, and that I ground my beliefs on the theology of my faith in addition to my study of history and current events.

    Sounds like a good book. I’ll have to dig it up. Two books that I’ve found particularly good on the subject are America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, and Young Patriots : The Remarkable Story of Two Men, Their Impossible Plan, and the Revolution that Created the Constitution, by Charles Cerami.

    I’d never heard about New Jersey’s early experiment in women’s suffrage. Good for them (though shame for dropping it). I’d always thought Wyoming was the first ever (a fact of which my wife, a native, is tremendously proud). You’re right, An examination of U.S. political history reveals a continual move towards a more thorough practice of Democracy. Abolishing the electoral college would make a very sensible next step.

    I’ve thought the same thing about President Bush’s insistence that his military adventurism is about spreading Democracy.

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