A new villain has emerged (actually, re-emerged) from the 2016 presidential election. According to the critics, the baffling, undemocratic and obsolete villain is the Electoral College.
Many Americans are baffled as to how Hillary Clinton could have received over a million more votes than Donald Trump and yet been the loser. Yes, they have been told that Trump took at least 290 votes in the Electoral College to Clinton’s 232, and that according to the Constitution it is that, and not the overall popular vote, which is decisive.
But why should that be? they ask. Isn’t it undemocratic? And even if the Founders had a good reason at the time for writing it into the Constitution, hasn’t that time long passed, and shouldn’t it be done away with?
As retiring California senator Barbara Boxer, put it, “This is the only office in the land where you can get more votes and still lose the presidency. The Electoral College is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society, and it needs to change immediately.”
Maybe so. There are interesting arguments for and against, but first, it is necessary to address a most disturbing phenomenon that has been taking form in the post-election period. A grassroots campaign is afoot to persuade — or coerce — the electors from the various states that went for Trump to abandon their pledges to cast their ballots for him. Since in many states they are not legally bound to follow up their pledge, it is technically a possibility.
They are being exhorted to become what is known as “faithless electors.” In an era of euphemisms and political correctness, we can be grateful for the blunt accuracy of the phrase. For if any of the individual electors should, in fact, renege on a written commitment to vote for the choice of his or her state, it would indeed be an act of betrayal of the voters of that state and the Constitutional process.
Electors in Republican states have been inundated with demands to change their vote. Some of those demands have been abusive and threatening, continuing the ugliness of the 2016 campaign.
So far, there is no indication that they will give in to such pressure. In 2000, a similarly unseemly scenario took place after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the Electoral College while losing in the popular vote.
Carole Jean Jordan, a GOP elector from Florida that year, recently recalled the “unbelievably ugly” aftermath of the Supreme Court decision to halt a recount in Florida, thus securing Bush’s narrow win in that state, and consequently in the Electoral College overall. Florida’s electors were inundated with nasty letters from people saying they shouldn’t vote for Bush. Police had to guard their homes and the hotel they stayed in at the state capital, Tallahassee, where they cast their votes.
They stood up to the post-election thuggery, and we are confident that the Republican electors of 2016 will do the same. History should repeat itself here. The records show that more than 99 percent of all electors have voted as pledged, faithfully, throughout presidential history.
What about electors who pledged themselves to vote for the Republican or Democratic choice of their state, but not to any specific candidate, and for whom a vote for Trump would be against conscience? In that case, the honorable way out would be to resign and let somebody else cast the vote.
There are valid reasons to reconsider the electoral system. The reason James Madison and his colleagues instituted the Electoral College was the fear of “the tyranny of the majority,” as Alexis de Tocqueville later called it. The Founders worried that a demagogue would lead the masses to support dictatorial rule, something that indeed happened in Germany, Italy, and other countries since then.
The climate of opinion in early 21st-century America is not in sympathy with the Founders on this. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans would get rid of the Electoral College. In recent days, various petitions have garnered over a million signatures in favor of changing the system.
Supporters of the current system point out that America is known as the “United States” because it was formed when 13 individual colonies decided to create a union. The electoral system, like the balance of the two houses of Congress, is based on the premise that it isn’t merely the number of people in this country who should have a say, but the number of states as well.
In any case, the chances of passing an amendment are slim. It would be unlikely to pass Congress and be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the states. The last major attempt at changing the electoral system was in 1969, when a proposed amendment was stopped by a Senate filibuster after passing the House.
Whether or not America should keep the electoral vote system is a question worth debating, but such a discussion should never be based on any individual winner or loser but on the pros and cons for the country as a whole. Many of the individuals calling for scrapping the Electoral College are only saying so because their candidate didn’t win. If the results had been reversed, and Mr. Trump had won the popular vote and Secretary Clinton the electoral vote, it is likely that his supporters would have cried foul while hers would have rejected the calls for change.
There is ample time to reconsider how Americans choose their president in the years to come. Now is a time for all Americans to accept the results and give the president-elect a chance to lead.