Bryan Fischer
The Founders' vision of presidential elections
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By Bryan Fischer
November 20, 2008

Benjamin Franklin, when asked at the end of the Constitutional Convention what kind of country the Founders had created, famously said, "A republic, if you can keep it."

A republican form of government is in stark contrast to a democratic form of government. In a pure democracy, the people themselves directly enact legislation and form public policy. The Founders correctly recognized that this was a recipe for chaos, mob rule, and the formation of public policy by sentiment rather than reason.

In a republican form of government, in contrast, elected representatives form public policy on our behalf. We choose the people who craft legislation rather than crafting it ourselves. This protects the process from wild swings in public opinion and sheer ignorance, and ensures that legislation can be fully debated and all points of view heard and considered before decisions are made.

The Founder's vision

In fact, the Founders even crafted a process by which our selection of a president followed republican rather than democratic standards.

The origins of the concept appear to go all the way back to the Centurial Assembly of ancient Rome, in which adult male citizens were divided into groups of 100, with each group entitled to one vote in favor or against proposals submitted to them by the Roman Senate.

In a pure democracy, we would elect our president by the simple, straightforward rule of the majority. Whoever gets the most votes, wins. (Most Americans mistakenly believe this is how we elect our presidents today.)

But that's not the system the Founders left us. The Constitution establishes the principle that the people do not in fact directly elect the president of the United States. What they do is elect the Electors who in turn select the president of the United States.

If you paid attention, you would have noticed in tiny print the names of the Electors (see ballot here) you were in fact voting for on your November ballot. Those of you in Idaho's Ada County who thought you were voting for John McCain were in actuality voting for Darlene Bramon, Ben Doty, John Erickson, and Melinda Smyser. Surprised?

These electors, in our current system, are not picked by the people, as the Founders intended, but rather by political parties, usually as an honorary reward for faithful service to the party rather than for any particular political acumen they may have.

Electing Electors

While the rapid emergence of the two-party system led to the 12th Amendment and ultimately obliterated the Electoral College system for all practical purposes, if we returned to the vision of the Founders, we would not elect a president on the first Tuesday in November but rather we would elect those who would elect our next president for us.

In other words, you would not find the name of any presidential candidates on our November ballots. Instead you would find the names of candidates for the temporary office of Elector.

And the campaigns leading up to the November vote would not be trillion dollar campaigns for the presidency, but 538 separate campaigns for the office of Elector.

Every state has two electoral votes to represent its two senate seats, and an additional number of electoral votes to represent the number of seats it has in the House of Representatives. Thus Idaho, for instance, has 4 electoral votes, to represent our two seats in the Senate and our two seats in the House.

While each state has the right to decide how its Electors are picked, it makes sense to have two at-large Electors for each state, to represent the senate seats, and then have one elector selected from each congressional district in each state.

Ending the winner-takes-all system

And we should move away from the winner-takes-all system, which sadly is the standard in 48 states.

Only Maine and Nebraska use the congressional district method, which resulted in a split of the electoral vote in Nebraska, where Obama carried one congressional district and got one of the state's five electoral votes. The winner-takes-all strategy in effect disenfranchises voters in congressional districts which, as in Nebraska, would choose a liberal elector in a state in which the majority of electors are conservatives.

In California, for instance, all of its 55 electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote. But if electors were picked by congressional district, approximately 20-25 electoral votes would in fact be cast for a conservative presidential candidate, with the remainder going for a liberal candidate. This gets us much closer to the "one man, one vote" ideal.

Campaigns for office of Elector

These candidates for Elector would spend the campaign season preferably each in their own congressional district, with two at-large Electors (representing each state's senators) campaigning statewide telling us why they should be trusted with the enormous responsibility of selecting the next leader of the free world, and then we would choose those Electors who in our view were determined to select someone with the public policy convictions we want in a president.

One candidate for Elector might say, "I can't tell you at this point who I will vote for, but my pledge to you is that I will vote for the man (generic use) who in my judgment will most effectively work for smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, a strong national defense, and traditional moral values."

His opponent might say, "I will vote for the candidate who has the most confidence in government programs to solve social ills, and who will enlarge the role of government intervention in society." Then the people pick which of the two (or more) electoral candidates they most trust to vote for a president on their behalf.

As Alexander Hamilton said in the Federalist Papers (No. 68), Electors were to be chosen for the "temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment" of the nation's president. "(T)he immediate election," he added, "should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station," those "most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite" to make such an important choice.

One thing is for certain, if we went back to the Founders' model, there is no way that 88% of these Electors, for example, would have no awareness that a candidate had openly declared that his policies would intentionally bankrupt a major industry that every American depends on. They might choose to ignore that fact, but they would certainly hear about during those six weeks.

(Almost 90% of Obama voters had no idea that their candidate is determined to bankrupt the coal industry, which provides 49% of the electricity Americans need to heat their homes, cook their food, and drive their hybrid cars.)

The Electoral College, as it came to be known, would be, according to Hamilton, an "intermediate body of electors," and would consist of a "small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass," "chosen by the people for the special purpose" of electing on our behalf the inhabitant of the Oval Office. Electors were "deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice."

This system, he adds, was designed to avoid "tumult and disorder," and would be less "apt to convulse the community" with the unrest that inevitably accompanies a nationwide presidential campaign.

Six week presidential campaign instead of two years

Under this system, the presidential campaign, if we had one at all, would only commence in earnest on the first Wednesday in November, and last about six weeks, until the 538 Electors in each state (and Washington, D.C.) convened on December 15 in their own states to cast their vote for president.

Since candidates would only need to persuade 270 voters in this scenario rather than 62 million, there would be no need for the stupendous amounts of money that currently distort the electoral process. Candidates would not even know who they had to persuade until they knew who the Electors were, which they could not know until the first Wednesday in November, and so we could get rid of these interminable and obscenely expensive presidential campaigns.

Of course, the Electors would obviously be under enormous political pressure during those six weeks. Likewise, the temptation for bribes would be magnified, and they would need to swear under oath that they had received no favors or promises of favors in exchange for their vote and be subject to prosecution if they violated that oath.

Protecting the integrity of the process

I can guarantee you that watchdog groups would be monitoring the bribery possibility like hawks, and exposing corruption is easier when all you have to do is keep an eye on 538 people rather than millions and millions.

That's why the people would need to choose wisely and carefully in November, and pick Electors who have the character and integrity to vote based on principle.

We wouldn't know until the votes of the Electoral College were tallied who our next president would be, which might not even happen until January 6 when the president of the Senate formally opens the sealed ballots from the individual states. (This would depend upon how willing Electors were to reveal for whom they had cast their votes in December.)

Now given the stupendous size of the federal government, and the enormous war chests candidates can raise, it would be difficult to keep presidential candidates from meddling in these Elector campaigns. Money corrupts virtually everything it touches, and presidential politics is more susceptible to that particular virus than anything else in society. That possibility has to be accounted for, and safeguards put in place. (I'm open to suggestions on this let me hear them!)

It's always a good idea to go back to our founding documents to see whether and how far we have strayed from the vision of the Founders. With regard to presidential elections, when it comes to current practice compared to original intent, we're way out in the weeds.

But, hey, it never hurts to dream. After all, it worked for Martin Luther King. Jr., didn't it?

Hamilton defends the Electoral College in Federalist Papers

History of the Electoral College


© Bryan Fischer

 

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