Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Constitution: Electing the President

I got a bit ahead of myself yesterday when I said we'd take up a discussion of the Bill of Rights starting today. We'll start that series tomorrow ... today I want to discuss a topic of some importance this year: the election of the President.

Many Americans and almost all foreign observers are mystified by our electoral process. We begin with nasty and raucous primary elections, in which the presidential wannabes of the various political parties smear and accuse each other, eating their young and providing plenty of negative ammunition about the eventual nominee to the opposing parties. We then move on to expensive, noisy, and useless party conventions in which the bruised, battered survivors of the primary process finally decide who will be the official nominee of the party. And once the parties have selected their candidates, those candidates engage in a final few months of "debates," lies, distortions, ad-hominem attacks, and promises they will have no power to fulfill. The parties and their hidden bankrollers will spend tens of millions of dollars in an attempt to convince Real People to cast their votes for ... who, exactly?

Yes, Dear Readers, who is it that you actually vote for?

The Constitution does not allow for the direct election of the President by the voting population. Voters may mark a paper ballot or push a button on a voting machine next to the name of Joe Candidate, but they're not actually casting their votes for Joe, but for a group of people known as electors, who will eventually decide whether or not Joe becomes the President.

Bizarre, eh?

The system by which the president is elected is established in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, as adjusted by the 12th Amendment. Briefly, each state is allocated a number of electors, selected and appointed according to the laws of that state. The number of electors a state receives is based on its total Congressional representation ... that is, each state gets a minimum of three electors (because each state has two senators and at least one representative) and an unlimited maximum based on its total representation in the House, where representation is based on the state's population. Once the popular vote has been counted, the winner of the popular vote in each state is determined, and the electors from that state cast their votes for that state's popular vote winner ... although they are, in practice, free to vote for whomever they wish.

Thus, presidential candidates spend an inordinate amount of time fighting over electoral powerhouses like California, Texas, and Florida, and considerably less over such smaller electoral prizes as Maine and Vermont.

Why did the founders set up such an odd system? Why not just allow for direct election of the president by popular vote? There are two versions of the history ...

According to one version, the Founders were concerned that power not be concentrated in any single branch of government or in the people ... thus, they contrived a system to limit not just the powers of the three branches of the government, but also the tyranny of a voting majority. I don't think much of this theory, which flies in the face of the idea of a representative democracy.

The other version, which I believe is more accurate, is that the Founders recognized the limits of the people and the time in which they lived. They knew that their new nation had a relatively small population spread over an enormous area, difficult to keep informed about key issues. They also knew that many citizens were not particularly well-educated and able to understand those issues. Thus, they contrived a system in which the leaders of the individual states would select better-educated, better-informed electors to do the actual voting on behalf of the Great Unwashed.

Is this an appropriate system for the 21st century, as opposed to the 18th? I don't think so, although there are passionate arguments made by partisans on both sides of the argument. In the worst case, as in the hotly-contested election of 2000, the actual winner of the popular vote (Al Gore) may lose to the candidate with the larger electoral vote (George W. Bush). There have actually been four presidential elections (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000) in which the winner of the popular vote lost in the electoral college.

No matter what we think of the Electoral College (and, by the way, that isn't what the Constitution calls it), it's the system that will decide the election of 2012. Because the electoral system is enshrined in the Constitution, it will take a constitutional amendment to change it ... and this is a long, cumbersome process that has defeated many attempts over the years to change the electoral system.

Does your vote count if you are in the minority in a state whose majority causes the electors to vote for the candidate you don't like. Yes, although probably not as much as it would in a direct popular vote election. Remember that the outcome of this year's Iowa caucuses was decided in favor of Mitt Romney by a staggering eight votes.

So do what I do ... hold your nose, and vote for the candidate you like. Or the candidate you find least distasteful. Just vote.

Have a good day. Tomorrow, we'll move on to start discussing the Bill of Rights. More thoughts then.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

With this election coming up...I'm pretty sure we should give ourselves back to the UK. At least then we'd get the BBC

Mike said...

And the 12th amendment which is partially superceded by the 20th and .......

eViL pOp TaRt said...

I wonder if switching to the election of Presidents by popular vote might be an impropvement. However, we should also have run-offs if no candidate achieves a majority.

An elector is not under any legal obligation to vote for the candidate she or he is pledged to.//

Melissa B. said...

The Electoral College pertubs me, big-time. But Newt Gingrich downright puts me in the foulest of moods!