Evanston RoundTable, March 7, 2019
Five times in our nation’s history, including twice in the last generation, the will of the people has been subverted by a process that is obsolete and undemocratic. I am referring, of course, to the Electoral College.
It is hard to justify its continued existence. Every four years it disenfranchises a minority of citizens in any given state, whose electoral votes are wiped out by the “winner take all” system. “Too many Americans don’t believe their vote matters,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer in introducing a bill in 2016 to abolish the Electoral College. She called it “an outdated, undemocratic system that doesn’t reflect our modern society.”
The system was devised for a number of reasons (preserving slavery may have been one), principally James Madison’s fear of “factions,” that is, domination by special interest groups, and Alexander Hamilton’s concern that the presidency should never fall to any man “not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In addition, the system was designed to “balance” rural America vs. the more heavily populated urban regions.
Some people—currently a third of those polled—evidently think those are still valid reasons. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Clearly the founding fathers distrusted the common man. The Constitution of 1787 stipulated that only landowning white men could vote, hardly a show of support for universal suffrage. They may have been influenced by their study of ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and ancient Rome, the model of the American republic, where early forms of democracy led to violence and “mobocracy,” according to Alex Hobson, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Chabraja Center for Historical Studies. “The founders saw democracy as too much of a free-for-all,” he said.
In that context, Madison’s concern about “the tyranny of factions” might have been understandable. Today such a concern would be considered laughable if not dangerous. Imagine a proposal to revert to indirect election of Senators.
Hamilton’s objection presupposes that selected electors are more qualified than the average citizen to select a chief executive. That may have been true 230 years ago, when an estimated 40% of the population couldn’t read and many people didn’t have access to newspapers and such resources as the Federalist Papers. But it is certainly untrue today in our media-saturated age. We are in no danger of a dearth of information or opinions!
The founders also were predisposed to “protect their own economic interests” and to “legitimate their right to rule” by narrowing the electorate, said Dr. Hobson.
As for advantaging underpopulated rural areas, establishing some kind of balance between different parts of the country was probably even then an unrealistic and unjustifiable goal. There is only one way to ensure fairness and accuracy of the popular will: count one vote per person. This principle was firmly established in a 1964 Supreme Court decision. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the case that established the one person-one vote principle: ”People, not land or trees or pastures vote.”
The Constitution Project has written, “… the value of ‘one person, one vote,’ once brought to light, seemed so profoundly rooted in the Constitution its practice became inevitable.”
Does the Electoral College have any place in the modern world? Writing on the day Michael Cohen testified in Congress about the President’s avarice, duplicity and criminal behavior, clearly Hamilton’s belief that the system would screen out unqualified office-holders has failed.
“The founding fathers must be spinning in their graves now,” said Northwestern History Professor Leslie Harris. “This is not what they envisioned, this is what they were trying to prevent—using the office for personal gain.”
One person equals one vote is the gold standard of democracy. Overturning free and fair elections should never happen. If we fear the majority then we fear democracy. And while majorities can sometimes be wrong, that is a risk we willingly take in a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”