By Martin Dyckman
When the news flashed on Facebook before the election that Queen Elizabeth II had offered to take us back, some people failed to recognize it as one of Andy Borowitz‘s deft satires from the New Yorker.
And some, I’m sure, now wish it were true.
Afterward, a friend in Britain wrote to offer refuge — many thanks, Bob, but not yet — and remarked that “there must be a flaw in a system which produces such an outcome.” He was “rather surprised at how many people failed to vote.”
That flaw is the Electoral College. For the fourth time in our history, and the second in 16 years, it has given the presidency to the candidate who polled fewer votes — 2 million fewer in this case — than his principal rival.
That is hard to explain — actually, it’s indefensible — even to our own people. How can a country that calls itself a democracy tolerate it?
The founders didn’t trust the people.
“Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast,” Alexander Hamilton is supposed to have said to his bitter enemy, Thomas Jefferson.
“The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God,” Hamilton told the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second…”
So they created a republic, not a democracy. In particular, they didn’t trust the people to elect a president. They meant for the less populated states to have an outsized influence. That had a lot to do with protecting slavery.
There is still no guaranteed right to vote, though it can no longer be denied on account of race, color, gender, or to persons over 18.
In the Federalist papers, Hamilton remarked that presidential selection was the least controversial aspect of the pending Constitution.
It would be “made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station … A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”
The electors have long since been reduced to ceremonial functionaries (do you know or even care who yours are?), but the mechanism and the malapportion persist. Wyoming’s three electors each represent 187,922 people. A California elector speaks for 677,354. The Wyoming voter has more than three times the weight of one in California.
Among the 16 smallest states and the District of Columbia, Hillary Clinton actually won more electors — 39 — than Donald Trump, who had 29. But those 29 were eight more than his winning margin. The eight small states that he won have barely one percent of the U.S. population, but they accounted for 10 percent of his electoral votes.
Another feature of that founding flaw is that it discourages turnout in any state where the vote isn’t expected to be close. If that Wyoming voter is a Democrat and the California voter is a Republican, their votes don’t matter at all. With direct election, every vote would weigh the same. The presidential campaign would not be confined to a dozen or so “battleground states,” those that neither side can take for granted.
So, what can we do about this?
For one thing, we could amend the Constitution. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has introduced a bill to do that. But this will likely be the last you hear of it. Amendment requires a three-fifths vote in each house (not two-thirds as I erroneously wrote recently) and approval by three-fourths (38) of the states. Democrats are short of even a majority in those categories and Republicans are quite unlikely to favor reform.
That’s because every candidate who won the popular vote and lost the election was a Democrat:
— Andrew Jackson, 1824. With four candidates splitting the electoral vote, the House had to decide and gave it to John Quincy Adams instead. Jackson spent the next four years railing about a “corrupt bargain” and wiped out Adams in 1828.
— Samuel J. Tilden, 1876. He led by some 250,000 votes, but a Congressional commission awarded the electors from Florida and two other disputed states to Rutherford B. Hayes, who promised to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction. That really was a corrupt bargain.
— Al Gore, 2000. Florida’s famously fouled up vote-count was decisive for George W. Bush by the official margin of 537 votes
— Hillary Clinton, 2016. Her national popular vote margin and her electoral vote deficit are both larger than Gore’s.
There’s another remedy, simpler and more feasible than a constitutional amendment. The Constitution leaves it to the legislatures to determine how electors are chosen.
Under an active proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, states would instruct their electors to vote for whoever wins the popular vote. Ten state legislatures and the District of Columbia have already agreed to this, but it’s effective only when states representing 270 electoral votes, the majority, have joined. The 11 account for 165, more than halfway there.
But it’s hard to see where the remaining 105 electoral votes could be found. All 11 present members of the compact voted for Clinton. The other states she carried would add only 47 more votes, and most of them have Republican legislatures, as do most of Trump’s states.
What would it take to persuade the Republicans?
A reverse of 2000 and 2016 could do it: A Democrat loses the popular vote but wins 270 or more electors. That’s a long shot, but it’s not inconceivable. A moderate Republican in the mold of George H.W. Bush could hold the Democrats to narrow victories in the swing and safely blue seats while winning by large margins in the others.
Trouble is, it’s hard to imagine a moderate being nominated by the GOP in its present mode. If the popular vote is to prevail in the near future, the Democrats may just have to nominate stronger candidates, show a more compelling sense of purpose, and run better campaigns than they did this year and 16 years ago.
Martin Dyckman covered local, state and national government and politics and wrote editorials and opinion columns during a 46-year career with the St. Petersburg Times, where he retired in 2006 as associate editor. He is the author of three books. He lives in western North Carolina. See Dyckman’s previous column on the death penalty here.