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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Electoral College Electing the U.S. President: A Check on Excess Democracy at the Empire Level

As a delegate in the U.S. constitutional convention, Governeur Morris stated on July 19, 1787 that the proposed National Executive (i.e. the U.S. President) should be “a firm guardian of the people and of the public interest.” (1)  Given this role, Morris maintained that it “cannot be possible that a man shall have sufficiently distinguished himself to merit this high trust without having his character proclaimed by fame throughout the Empire.” (2)   In other words, presiding requires a requisite credibility or stature that may be difficult to find in a territory on the scale of an empire.

The E.U. has obviated this problem by having presidencies of particular E.U. governmental bodies the a state government serving in the E.U. Presidency, a figure-head “office” based on a six-month rotation. The U.S., on the other hand, put all of their eggs in one basket in terms of having one president with substantial power in being commander in chief and having a legislative veto as well as a “bully pulpit.” Considerable emphasis is thus placed on the office’s selection process.

In the constitutional convention, Morris believed that the people at large “would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce [a President] of distinguished Character.” (3) Morris was assuming that at least one candidate can be found whose character has been proclaimed by fame throughout the Empire. Differing from Morris, Gerry argued on July 19 in the convention that the “people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men. He urged the expediency of an appointment of the Executive by Electors to be chosen by the State Executives.” (4)  In other words, suitable candidates could exist, but the people would not be sufficiently aware of their characters to discern the wheat from the chaff.

Electors selected by the governors and presidents of the States would be of lesser number and thus able to come to know the candidates and thus avoid electing a lemon. However, Williamson, also on July 19, “had no great confidence in the Electors to be chosen for the special purpose. . . . They would be liable to undue influence.” (5) Even so, the convention voted that the President would be appointed by electors to be chosen by the State legislatures.

Williamson turned out to be right; the political parties have had tight influence on the States’ electors. The electors would also prove to be excessively subject to the influence of the  citizens who vote for them, rather than being a check on the passions and ignorance of the wider public.  In other words, the selection process has come to enervate an intended check on the democracy of the moment (e.g., the flavor of the month).  Presidential elections have become virtual popularity contests.  The matter of finding someone with sufficient maturity and credibility to preside over the common good has been lost.  Accordingly, the presidents have been highly partisan—even going against their campaign promises for political expediency. My point is that we can look beyond the individual presidents and find that the selection process itself is perhaps biased against producing good governance.

It seems to me that a better alternative would be to have the governors of the States meet together to select the U.S. President. The governors are apt to know the candidates (or can meet them), and could assess them from the standpoint of presiding and executing law. Lest this alternative be thought to slight representative democracy, it could be pointed out that governors are popularly elected and thus accountable to the people.

In actuality, the alternative is both rooted in democracy and capable of providing a check on some of its drawbacks (e.g., popularity contests). Perhaps having the governors select the office would prompt voters to take their governor races more seriously. Additionally, this alternative might provide a needed check on the encroachment of the Federal Government onto the domains of the States (i.e., beyond the enumerated powers in the US Constitution), since the State governments lost their involvement in the U.S. Government in 1913 when U.S. Senators were no longer appointed by the State governments.

In short, the move would strength democracy as well as federalism. This is merely one alternative; doubtless other good ones exist as well.  My main point is that such alternatives should be dug up and debated using the American media and our representatives as conduits. We ignore the bias in the selection process at our own peril. Slighting the problem is itself indicative of the danger in the current process.

Click to add a question or comment (or view them) on the Electoral College.

1. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 324.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 327.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., pp. 328-29.