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Commentary: Here's to the Old Electoral College

Sunday, 05 November 2000 12:00 AM

The venerable Electoral College, alma mater of all our nation's presidents, has been of particular interest to many pundits who wonder if America will wake up Wednesday morning and find the candidate who won a majority of the popular vote is, in fact, not the president-elect of the United States.

This bothers them.

The college is not an antiquated way to choose a president. It is, for many reasons, a living and important part of the electoral process. It is very important to the underlying structure of the American system of governance, not a relic of the past.

Our nation is called the United States of America, not because it sounded like a good idea at the time to the Founding Fathers, but because it represents different political entities, the states, coming together "to form a more perfect union," as the Constitution puts it.

The founders feared political tyranny more than anything else. At the time the Constitution was written, in 1787, our new nation had spent close to 20 years dealing with one kind of tyranny or another.

"Miracle at Philadelphia," the magnificent book by Catherine Drinker Bowen, tells the story of the Constitutional Convention. The founders wrestled with different notions of what constituted tyranny – and how to defend against it – more than any other issue as they mapped out the design of the new government.

Once the British had been expelled from the United States, the nation was organized according to the Articles of Confederation, a compact between the states that established a weak central government. Under the articles, the nation as a nation was ungovernable.

The founders designed a system where power was distributed in many ways. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was subject to the tyranny of the states. Under the Constitution, the federal government was made stronger in many ways, a key criterion for Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important of the document's authors.

But for Gouverneur Morris, George Mason and others, states and state governments were an additional and necessary check on the power of Washington, essential guarantees to the liberty of Americans. These founders wanted, as Drinker Bowen discusses at length, to give the nation a federal government, not a national one.

Since the Civil War, states' rights have become a worn-out concept. Regrettably, it has been co-opted by many who do not have the best interests of all Americans in mind. Since the 1940s, the phrase "states' rights" has been made a code word for a defense of government racism and segregation.

But for the founders, the states were given tremendous power and authority, and the right to exercise it, without interference from the central government.

In the miraculous system the founders gave to us and to those who will follow us, executive, legislative, and judicial power in the federal government are divided to prevent any one branch from growing too strong.

Power is also split between the federal government and the states and communities, in recognition that a central government with limited authority was certain protection against tyranny.

The original formula for electing United States senators was one expression of the vertical separation of power. Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, not by the people of the states. They therefore represented the interests of state governments within the federal structure.

Direct election of senators changed that, transforming members of the upper chamber into representatives of the people of the states, rather than of the states' interests.

The Electoral College is similarly a mechanism ensuring that the identity of the states is preserved in our Republic and also is a safeguard against intrigue and corruption, as Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68.

By counting the votes for president by states and not by citizens, the Electoral College protects against any one state or region of the country from becoming too powerful.

The Electoral College affords a candidate two opportunities to assemble a majority: one, among the people in the popular vote and, two, among the states as they constitute the membership of the college itself. The second allows a president to claim a mandate with the consent of the governed.

This system allows for the eventual growth and prosperity of third parties, rather than retarding them. It also ensures that no president shall take the oath of office without having the support of a majority of the states that compose the federal government.

There is no runoff in the race for chief executive. If the Electoral College were eliminated, it is conceivable that in a multi-party race, such as the last three elections, a president could enter the White House without having assembled a majority in support of his or her election.

The nation would not function well if, by the popular vote alone, more Americans had voted against a president-elect than had voted in favor. It would be tyranny of the minority in a pure form.

Tyranny comes in many forms. Whether from the majority over the minority or the minority over the majority, the founders designed a process that is deliberately slow and cumbersome. The lateral separation of power and the vertical separation of power are vitally important guarantors of our liberty.

The Electoral College is not an antiquated way of picking a president; it is a current reminder of what is required to preserve our liberty.

(C) 2000 UPI. All Rights Reserved.

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The venerable Electoral College, alma mater of all our nation's presidents, has been of particular interest to many pundits who wonder if America will wake up Wednesday morning and find the candidate who won a majority of the popular vote is, in fact, not the...
Sunday, 05 November 2000 12:00 AM
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