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05 Jul 2006
Concerning National Popular Elections
When our federal government was being established, smaller states like Rhode Island and Connecticut feared losing their voice in the political process. Therefore, the prevalent feeling was that they would have no protection against the more highly populated states such as Massachusetts and New York. On the other hand, the lightly populated agricultural regions feared an inability to protect their interests against strong industries that dominated the more populous States along the coast. These serious concerns on how to ensure that each State and diverse region would have a voice led the framers to establish a government that would represent both the popular and federal natures of the country. And thus, they created the Electoral College in an attempt to accurately reflect this delicate balance in electing the President.
Over the years, the Electoral College hasn't necessarily functioned just how it was intended. Some still support it strongly, some oppose it strongly, while others remain on the proverbial fence. In the last few papers of this series, I have attempted to embark on an analysis of this system of electing our nation's executive. With this and coming papers, I hope to arrive at a conclusion as to just what manner of choosing a President will best preserve our liberty.
Those who strongly oppose the Electoral College often attempt to illustrate that it fails to accurately reflect the national popular will. They are quite correct on this count, in at least two respects.
- First, the distribution of the electoral votes in the college creates a predisposition towards over-representation in rural states. This is because the number of electors for each State is determined by the number of members it has in the House of Representatives (which is meant to reflect the popular will), plus the number of members it has in the Senate (which is always two regardless of population; thus representing the federal will).
- Second, the winner-take-all system in nearly every State gives the entirety of a State's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes.
One obvious effect of this method is to make it nearly impossible for third party or independent candidates to ever receive any considerable votes in the Electoral College. By thus failing to accurately reflect the national popular will, many argue, the Electoral College, therefore, has a side effect of reinforcing a two-party system. By discouraging third party or independent candidates, the college tends to restrict choices available to the People.
In the early 19th century, President Andrew Jackson wanted to remove the federal government from the control of the political elite that had ruled it since the adoption of the new Constitution. This was the mechanism Jackson favored for redistributing power away from this elite and giving it to the People.
Because popular election would give voters a way to directly pressure the executive, as well as a direct method of removing officials from office who did not further the will of the People, there would then be an incentive structure to hold elected officials more accountable to the demand of the voters.
After all, supporters of the popular vote argue, it would be all too undemocratic to deny the presidency to the person who receives the most votes. But, the design of the Constitution makes it quite clear that the framers did not intend to have the President elected by a simple direct vote. The Electoral College was built to prevent a few densely populated areas from dominating a large part of the rest of the nation simply by virtue of the fact that they have a greater number of people.
They left the decision up to the individual States to determine just how their respective presidential electors would be chosen. But, in practice, the result has been that despite the retention of the Electoral College, the President is essentially chosen by a direct popular vote, and has been since Jackson's time. The movement toward the purely democratic election of the President also corresponds with a more democratic view of the office itself, which also began to develop in that same era.
But, what Jackson and his subsequent supporters did not anticipate, was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, without the proper mechanisms in place to ensure minority protections, politicians would become even more inclined to make decisions that simply pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the liberties codified in the Bill of Rights.
A presidential campaign in a purely democratic system would look quite strange indeed. Any logically thinking candidate would focus solely on just a few large population centers. But, the opposite must be considered as well. A purely federal election process would result in candidates focusing their energies almost entirely in the smallest of States. The goal, in a properly structured federal government, is to find the ever-elusive perfect balance between the two.
Under the current system, it is possible that a candidate can win the presidency by winning a majority of just the eleven most populous States (California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia). But, alternatively, under a system of nationwide popular elections, this number could be reduced to even fewer States.
In fact, the margin of victory in a State would become more important than simply winning the State. This would result in candidates being motivated to avoid closely-contended States and spend their time and energy in States where they already had considerable support. This would clearly be done to simply drive up the margin of the vote in such States and add more to their national vote total. Additionally, a popular vote system would only increase political pandering, as national candidates would face even greater pressure than what we see today to take unsubstantial, uncreative, and transient, positions.
If a candidate needed to win only the popular vote, it would be possible to be elected President without winning a majority of anything. This President would not have been elected on the basis of any type of concurrence of the States, but simply on personal popularity in two or three heavily populated areas. Forcing a candidate to win a majority of the States on a federal level compels a candidate to appeal, at minimum, to a wider portion of the population than just a few densely populated areas. Candidates should be required to make their case throughout the nation in order to achieve the presidency.
While candidates must win the popular election of a State in order to get its electors, a system properly balanced between the federal and popular will is meant as a barrier against purely national popular elections. More importantly, in such a system, a candidate must win the election within the States, and not just the greatest number of votes in the nation, in order to be elected. This arrangement obliges candidates to gain a much broader appeal than if they simply were required to win the popular national election.
Advocates of a nationwide popular election, whether they do so intentionally or not, favor a strong, centralized federal government. By doing so, they show unmitigated contempt for the federalist concept of States' rights. They believe in exalting federal power, while reducing the States to little more than oversized federal counties receiving and carrying out orders from Washington.
To install a nationwide popular election for President would strike at the very heart of the federal structure which, as discussed previously, is a necessary component of preserving and promoting our liberty. In practice, it would essentially remove State borders, and transform our decentralized federal system into an overbearing centralized government, to the detriment of our liberty.
And, since a federal system of government is designed to represent the choice of each State for the presidency, building a nationwide popular vote would have the result of eliminating the role of the States in presidential elections. Nationalizing the selection would imply that States have no interest in national politics.
Whenever power is centralized, it has been argued throughout history; it grows and expands until it is used despotically against the People. The best way to limit power, and thus, limit tyranny, is to limit centralization. It is this important issue, which I will examine in more depth with my next paper.
In the spirit of liberty and prosperity,
This essay is the 31st edition of the series, The Populist Papers (www.populistamerica.com). Written anonymously to promote discussion of the principles alone, these essays attempt to both explain the complexities of government, and determine the proper place of a federal government based on the inherent rights of all people. Feedback is welcome at: info (at) populistamerica.com
This work is in the public domain