Friday, December 16, 2016

Americans deserve better than the Electoral College

By John Conyers, Jr.

Dean of the U.S. House
of Representatives
John Conyers, Jr.
With the Electoral College electors scheduled to meet Monday   to  formally elect Donald Trump as our 45th president, it is time that we reconsider whether a political compromise approved in 1787 bears any principled or practical reason for being today.

Several serious concerns were raised at a forum I organized earlier this month about the Electoral College featuring leading experts in history, constitutional law and political science. Most obviously, we learned that the Electoral College is anti-democratic. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has so far received more than 2.8 million more popular votes than  Trump — the largest divergence between the popular and electoral votes in history. This is the second time there has been a divergence between the popular vote and the Electoral College in the last five elections, and the fifth time since 1824.

We also learned that the Electoral College is rooted in slavery.  At our forum, Yale law professor Akhil Amar explained, slave states opposed direct elections for President because “in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves . . . could not vote.  But the Electoral College . . . instead let each southern state count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, in computing its share of the overall count.”

Our forum also made clear that many of the arguments in defense of the Electoral College are anachronistic. Electoral College defenders argue that it serves to check the passions of ordinary voters, pointing to Alexander Hamilton’s view in “The Federalist Papers,” that the Electoral College would help ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

However, the Electoral College does not formally meet to deliberate about who should be president.  The general public does not even know the electors’ identities, and the Electoral College’s choice for president has largely been reduced to mere formality. Members of the Electoral College are party loyalists who are subject to various state laws, some of which prohibit them from even exercising independent judgment.  This is why, notwithstanding recent protestations concerning the impact of Russian hacking during the election season, over time there have been very few faithless electors, and none that have decided an election’s outcome.

Rather than protect small-population states and rural areas from domination by large- population states and urban areas, the current system encourages candidates to overlook a majority of states and focus nearly all their campaign efforts on the small number of so-called swing states.  In 2016, for instance, both major-party candidates largely bypassed three of the four largest states by population during the campaign.  They also skipped 12 of the 13 smallest states, from “Blue” Rhode Island to “Red” Wyoming.

Finally, some Electoral College defenders argue that direct elections for president could lead to messy nationwide vote recounts. Our experience in Florida in 2000, and Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin this year, have taught us that statewide recounts under differing and confusing rules bring neither clarity nor finality to our electoral process. By contrast, a national popular vote is historically far more likely to establish a clear winner, avoiding the necessity of recounts altogether.

Many voters have told me that the political obstacles to reform are insurmountable, with a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and ratification by three-quarters of the states. The fact that in 1969 I was one of 338 members of the House of Representatives who voted on a bipartisan basis to amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College shows under the right circumstances the political will for reform can exist. However, other options are available, with 11 states accounting for 165 electoral votes having already entered an interstate compact to cast their electoral votes for the national popular vote winner. Legislation to enter the compact has been recently passed by at least one legislative chamber in four more states, potentially bringing us even closer to the 270 vote threshold needed for the interstate agreement to kick in.

The Supreme Court has long held that the “conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the 15th, 17th, and 19th Amendments can only mean one thing — one person, one vote.”

It is time that the election of our nation’s president and vice president reflect those principles as well.  The greatest democracy on Earth deserves no less.

To learn more about his new voting rights movement, visit:

Voting is beautiful, be beautiful ~ vote.©

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