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.