Opinion: Think long and hard before changing the Electoral College
The framers of our Constitution were committed to popular representation, but greatly opposed the uncompromised concentration of power.
“President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence was clear, calm and accurate in an address on Feb. 4 to the Federalist Society.
These qualities were extremely helpful, to him and the nation, during the turbulent four years of the Trump administration. They continue to serve us all as Trump intensifies his false claims the 2020 election was rigged, declaring Pence could have corrected the situation.
On Jan. 6, 2021, Pence, as vice president, calmly certified the results of the Electoral College, even as a violent and destructive mob was forming outside. Soon the rioters invaded the Capitol.
Federal prosecutors are systematically identifying and prosecuting these lawbreakers. Meanwhile, on Feb. 4 of this year, the Republican National Committee bizarrely declared the criminal behavior was part of “legitimate political discourse.”
Overlooked in all the ongoing political noise is the nature of the Electoral College. What exactly is this obscure institution? Why not just count the people’s votes? After all, the right to vote is fundamental to our nation.
The answer is the framers of our Constitution were committed to popular representation, but greatly opposed the uncompromised concentration of power. The Constitution begins “We, the people …” At the same time, the framers feared mob rule, a point brought home by the Jan. 6 riot.
The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the new Constitution also were well aware central authority was necessary. The earlier Articles of Confederation, put in place from the start of the American Revolution, proved ineffective.
Yet above all, the framers regarded concentrated political power as inherently dangerous. A powerful head of state could easily abuse the position, and the British Crown provided Exhibit A. A powerful legislature could also became dangerously assertive, and the British Parliament provided Exhibit B.
The framers responded by setting up a rather complex network of institutions in which none was dominant, actually or potentially, by design. They considered having the president selected by Congress. However, ultimately, they discarded that concept as encouraging potentially dangerous cooperation between two of the three branches of the federal government.
The final Constitution involved clear separation in allocated powers, but required practical cooperation in carrying out governing functions. People opposed to changing or abolishing the Electoral College express concern about dangers of tinkering with this mechanism.
The Electoral College reflects this network approach. The College consists of people assembled in each state, plus the District of Columbia, to select the president and vice president of the United States after the people vote. The electors are equal in number to a state’s congressional delegation. Federal office holders cannot serve.
Each state allocates all electors to the candidate for each high office receiving the most votes, except for Maine and Nebraska. In these states, two electors represent the winning ticket, with others allocated to the winning ticket in each congressional district.
Direct election would spur campaigns focused on metropolitan populations. Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory permitted representation of an enormous, but diffused, alienated population.
In the 1950s, there was serious, sustained public debate about abolishing the Electoral College. Freshman Sen. John F. Kennedy took a leading role, noting any change involved “not only the … presidency …, but a whole solar system of government.” He added, “If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements …, it is necessary to consider the others.”
Think hard, never easy.
Arthur I. Cyr, author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan/Palgrave), is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College