We Can Only Have One President at a Time

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2016 Election Results

It happens every time. We have any number of candidates for president, and only one wins. Durn it. The winner becomes president and the others do not. People who voted for the losers will feel some measure of disappointment no matter what system we use to choose the winner (singular).

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1860 presidential election. (Depicting Abraham Lincoln dancing with a black woman was scandalous at the time)

The United States Constitution defines the method for choosing the president. The electoral college chooses the president:

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector. U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, paragraph 2.”

As the Twelfth Amendment specifies (the original method proved to be a disaster, so they amended the Constitution after the 1800 election to fix it), the electors meet in their states and vote for president, sending the results to the president of the Senate, who will open the envelopes in the presence of Congress and count them. If one candidate receives a majority of the votes, that person becomes president. If not, the House of Representatives chooses the president from among the top three winners in the electoral college. This almost never happens.

Note that there is no requirement in the Constitution for any popular vote in this process at all. The only reason why ordinary voters all over the country vote for president is that every state legislature chooses to do it that way. In theory, they could use another method consistently with the Constitution, but their voters might well turn them out.

Note also that each state gets a number of electors “equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Every state gets two Senators, regardless of population, and in the original Constitution, state legislatures chose U.S. Senators (we changed that with the Seventeenth Amendment).

In sum, the Founders wanted the process of choosing a president to be two steps removed from a popular vote. Voters (only property owning white men at the time of the ratification of the Constitution) did get to choose their state legislators, who then chose both the U.S. Senators and the electors to the electoral college for choosing the president. Including Senators in the allocation of electoral votes among states also removed the selection of the president from the operation of majority rule, since, again, every state gets two Senators regardless of population.

So, under the electoral college, states with small populations have more influence in choosing the president than they would otherwise. Allowing voters to choose both Senators and electoral voters increases the effect of exaggerated influence for states with small populations.

The Founders were elitists. The electoral college reflects this elitism. We are less elitist in the modern United States, by law in some respects. The Founders thought neither African Americans nor women should vote. We have adopted amendments to the Constitution expressly allowing both populations to vote. Again, we have also amended the Constitution to allow voters to choose U.S. Senators.

But we still have the electoral college. After two elections in twenty years in which the winner of the popular vote for president did not win in the electoral college, there is active discussion of eliminating the electoral college. Because the two presidents who won that way are both Republicans, Democrats are much more eager to abolish the electoral college than Republicans. Sarah Palin (!) explicitly supports Donald Trump in opposing the idea of eliminating the electoral college.

The leading argument in favor of the electoral college is that it ensures the relevance of the geographically large, lightly populated, middle of the country to the process of choosing the president.

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As the Conservative Review put the point, “The Electoral College gives people throughout a voice that they wouldn’t otherwise have if the president were chosen by popular vote…. Without it, the president would be chosen more by the California coast and the megalopolis between Washington, D.C. and Boston and less by the whole of the republic.”

This plainly an exaggeration. As the map above shows, to get to half of the population, the threshold if we chose the president by simple majority, one has to include metropolitan areas in nearly every state, distributed across the country, with pockets in every geographical area.

It is also not true. States with very few electoral college votes get very little, if any, attention from presidential candidates.

But also, someone is going to be unhappy with the outcome of every presidential election. Why should a majority, or, in 2016, a plurality, of the nation’s voters be unhappy with the outcome? It is especially amusing that the defenders of the electoral college often state that the electoral college prevents “urban elites” from choosing the president.

Actually, as we have seen, for the elitist Founders, the electoral college was part of the system of minimizing popular input in choosing the president.

As it happens, in 2016, the winner in the electoral college, in office, has not exhibited a strong commitment to representing the entire country, so it does not actually have that effect anyway. We can certainly hope we will never again have a president as petty and vindictive as Donald Trump, but his having become president because of the electoral college does not support the claim that the electoral college ensures equal representation of the entire country by the president.

Certainly, the president is the only federal official who has any official responsibility to represent the entire country, but ensuring representation of the entire country is really a task better left to Congress, which has representatives from every state by design.

It really makes no more sense to insist that “urban elites” have any duty to let rural rubes choose the president than vice versa, especially when recent historical experience shows that the people in the middle of the country pick horrible presidents.

The electoral college no longer serves its supposed purpose. We should eliminate it.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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