Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Regime Change

With the Presidential Electors officially casting their ballots on last Monday, it is a timely occasion for a short observation on the electoral college: its time to abolish it.

It originated in the time when those men entrusted with political power arranged our institutions with maximum "filtration" of the popular will. They acknowledged that in a republic, power must rest with the people. Yet they also recognized that the people too often fall under the sway of their passions and act politically against their own long term interests. Consequently, most government institutions moderated the general will of the people.

The most obvious means was the separation of government powers into legislature, executive, and judicial branches. Most legislative branches were further divided into two houses.

A second means was the mode of elections. In the early republic, most voters faced property qualifications in order to vote. Because of the widespread holding of property, most male citizens exercised the right to vote. Many important offices, however, were not submitted to the voters. Under most of the first state constitutions, governors were elected by one or both of the state houses. On the federal level, the President was elected by a special "assembly" of electors chosen by the state legislature for that purpose alone--commonly called the Electoral College. And under the original provisions of the Constitution, United States Senators were elected by the state legislatures. 

Within a hundred or so years, the nature of the regime has changed. Gradually all property qualifications disappeared in every state. Eventually women received the right the vote. In addition, states amended their constitutions or wrote completely new ones that established popular election of the governors. Many states even expanded directed lawmaking authority to the voters through initiatives and referendums.

Government at the federal level changed as well. Amendment 15 established the right of black Americans to vote. Amendment 17 provided for the direct election of United States Senators instead of selection by the state legislatures. And Amendment 19 guaranteed the right to vote for women.

In short, we have expanded the suffrage and minimized the filtration of the will of the people.

Yet we still have the monstrosity known as the electoral college that retains the old system of "filtration" of the voters that has been bastardized by its pairing with popular elections and political parties.

It's time to do away with it. 

Most discussions of this issue involve partisan perspectives that seem most concerned with how the popular election of the President will effect the prospects of each political party. Who knows the answer to that question. Regardless of which party benefits, I think it will enhance the quality of our elections in two areas.

First, popular elections will eliminate the claims of "mandates" by the winning candidates. The winner-take-all nature of the current process exaggerates the extent of the victory by the winning candidates. Even the most lopsided elections in U.S. history involved only a little more than a 60-40 split in the popular vote. Presidents typically use the claim of electoral mandates to pressure Congress into doing their bidding.

Second, popular elections will require that candidate focus on reaching as many voters as possible in all states. Currently, candidates "write off" states for which pre-election polling indicates a sure loss or a sure victory. Consequently, candidates devote their time and resources to the contested high electoral count "swing" states. Under a system of popular election of the President, candidates will be forced to "get out the vote" in every state.

With the popular election of the President, the campaigns will be more meaningful and the results will provide a more realistic picture of the desires of the voters.

It is time for electoral modernization.

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