De-Accrediting the Electoral College: The Real Costs of a Constitutional Relic

Hillary Clinton’s superdelegate strategy has highlighted the flaws in our electoral college system — and the need to finally embrace democracy in its truest form in the selection of the President of the United States. The column below explores the controversy.

HEADLINE: Unequal votes;
The Electoral College is a relic of elitist Framers who didn’t fully trust ‘the people.’ Yet the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system relies on the same disturbing principle.

It appears that the Electoral College has finally found a passionate advocate. Indeed, the past few weeks, Hillary Clinton has been talking so much about the Electoral College, one would think she was an alumna.

In her campaign for superdelegates, Clinton has been insisting that it is irrelevant whether Barack Obama receives the majority of votes or even the majority of states. It is all about the Electoral College; therefore, voters in red states who chose Obama do not really count because, as Democrats, they will not have any say in the general election.

Clinton is, of course, correct.

There are those, however, who would like to change that. This month, Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed the elimination of the Electoral College and the long-overdue adoption of direct election of the president. While attempted many times before, reformers hope that the current outcry over superdelegates will highlight the equally undemocratic role of the Electoral College.

Kindred systems

The Electoral College and the superdelegate system work on the same premise: Citizens sometimes cannot be entirely trusted to choose the next president. Clinton last week even dismissed the notion of “pledged” (or non-super) delegates as a “misnomer,” suggesting that they are free to disregard the will of voters in choosing a nominee.

The senator of New York has stressed that such delegates would not be swayed by the “passion” and oratory of Obama. Since many of Obama’s states are locks for the Republicans in the Electoral College come November, her campaign has called on the party leadership to recognize that she is more electable in a system that does not recognize the national majorities.

Clinton would have found great allies in the Framers. Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry warned that “the people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men.” Even George Mason, the great advocate of the Bill of Rights, dismissed direct election due to the inability of ordinary citizens to actually see and hear candidates, given the country’s size: “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper magistrate to the people as it would to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.”

While the Framers were great believers in the natural rights of the common man, they actually had little faith in the judgment of the common man. Indeed, most of the Framers were unflinching, unrepentant elitists. They wanted a representative democracy to create a buffer of educated men between citizens and their government. It was not until 1913 that the country finally amended the Constitution to allow for direct election of senators (who were originally elected by state legislatures).

Throughout U.S. history, the Electoral College has worked as designed: to place elections in the hands of an elite. Past controversies involved the same personal wheeling and dealing that we’re seeing today with superdelegates:

*In 1800, there was a tie in electoral votes between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson’s successful power play left such a bitter aftermath that it might have contributed to Burr’s alleged betrayal of his country and his shooting of Alexander Hamilton.

*In 1824, Andrew Jackson received the most votes of four candidates. However, John Quincy Adams effectively bought off Henry Clay who, in return for throwing his votes to Adams, became his secretary of State.

*In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the majority of votes by a margin of 250,000 over Rutherford B. Hayes. Yet Hayes bought the nomination with a promise to withdraw Northern troops from the South and end Reconstruction.

Then, of course, there was the 2000 election, when Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush but was denied the White House because of the Electoral College system.

Defenders of status quo

Advocates often insist that the college forces candidates to pay attention to small states in their campaigns. Yet, the opposite is true.

A Democratic nominee currently has little reason to campaign in Utah, or a Republican nominee to visit Massachusetts. But if the country had direct elections, a candidate would have every reason to go to such states to secure a couple hundred thousand votes. Given the often close margins of modern elections, no candidate is going to leave thousands of votes in Salt Lake City untapped if they actually counted toward the election.

The fact is that the Electoral College is preserved for, and by, the people who created it: the nation’s ruling elite. The college gives both parties locks on states by discouraging opposing candidates from campaigning in their states and undermining their party’s control. Conversely, a direct election would allow candidates to make pitches directly to citizens and thereby reduce the influence of the two-party monopoly. Suddenly, people in Boise and Boston would see both candidates campaign for their votes instead of sitting out the general election as pre-ordained electoral proxies for their parties. Moreover, voters are no longer “blind” and now can see and hear candidates for themselves.

Despite our immense respect for the Framers, they were not perfect. Even so, they did possess the humility to acknowledge that time could prove them wrong and created a process by which we could amend the Constitution. We have proved them wrong about the ability of ordinary citizens to make decisions directly about their government; we have proved better than their expectations.

One politician understood that in 2000, stating, “We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago. … We should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

It was Hillary Clinton.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors.

LOAD-DATE: April 8, 2008

30 thoughts on “De-Accrediting the Electoral College: The Real Costs of a Constitutional Relic”

  1. Mustang,

    A 59 or 60 Plymouth Fury tends to stick in the memory! They are kind of like that date you had in high school with the “bad girl”….taken only once, but you remember her forever…..

    (you also remember the “good girls” forever too! I married mine!)

  2. Sorry, straight 6, 200 cu. in. Automatic three speed. Radio, AM. Nothing else extra – no power window, power steering, AC, nothin’.

    Geez, Michael, 40 years is a long time to remember things, isn’t it?

  3. Michael Spindell, Altough I drove my new 698 Mustang until 1992, I still recall those early 1960s Chrysler cars, including the 1964 Dodges supplied by the agency motor pool with manual shift on the column, no radio, no power steering, brakes or windows, and no AC, but with very good lines. They were sold to the government for about $1200 each.

  4. I’m going horribly off topic but Whoolie & DW stirred my own memories.
    Whoolie thanks for mentioning the Fury. When I was writing my last comment I couldn’t remember the various Plymouth models. Fury was the top of the Plymouth line. To me the 60 Plymouth with it’s huge tailfins was the nicest Plymouth made. My father was at times an auto sales manager, a salesman and went broke twice as a dealer. Always with Chrysler products. My older brother and I loved cars and always wanted to follow him in the business. In 1961 he opened a Chrysler/Plymouth dealership in the borough of Queens in NYC. My big brother worked there and I was a Junior in HS. We both dreamed of working in the family dealership. My father advertised a Plymouth for the price of $1,300 as a “leader” to bring in customers. It was a total bottom of the line car (I still can’t remember the model) with a 3 speed stick on the column and no radio. Very undesirable at the time.There was only one on the lot and when a customer would come in they would switch him to a more expensive car. As it turned out 1961 was the worst year to that date in Chrysler history and my father went broke. He died 2 years later and I always felt it was from the disappointment of his dreams. It kept my brother and I out of the car business though and I think that was for the best. Strangely though I’m still a Chrysler fan and I own 3 Chrysler Convertables now, though one is used by my younger daughter.

    As to the pushbutton automatic transmission I had quite a few incidents where I pushed the wrong button. I was a street drag racer in those years and when you were shifting in a race it was quite easy to hit reverse at the wrong time. How I made it out of that period without killing myself, or injuring others I don’t know. Sorry for the rambling of a guy whose gotten long in the tooth, but your comments brought me back.

  5. Deeply worried: Your l960 Plymouth Fury reminded me of the white 1959 Plymouth fury I had with the push button drive. Trying to be cool and make the tires squeal while cruising main street I pushed R instead of 2nd. The tires squealed alright. Seems like it was $75 to replace the seals.

  6. Michael,

    “I thought it was a 61 Plymouth coupe, with a three speed manual on the column.” -Michael Spindell

    In the summer of 1967 I owned a pale blue 60 Plymouth Fury (with the huge tailfins) white interior, push-button transmission up to the left of the steering wheel. Only problem, the P (or it may have been the R) button would stick in the depressed position, but you could reach under the dash and pop it back out. My friends were all driving little brit and italian sports cars but I prided myself on my lumbering tuna boat.

    Apropos of nothing…just a good memory.

  7. Binx, Jill & Mespo
    Are you sure it was a Morris Minor, I thought it was a 61 Plymouth coupe, with a three speed manual on the column.

    I guess we’ve all suffered these type of attacks from benighted souls who’ve absorbed the agitprop and spew it out mindlessly. I feel more sorry for them than angry at them. It is pathetic to live your life without examining and reexamining your own beliefs. It seems to be a matter of lack of confidence in one’s own reasoning process and that bespeaks a sad upbringing, perhaps more than a lack of intelligence.
    To put it another way, I first realized that I might be starting to get wisdom when I began to understand how little I knew.

  8. Crazy Uncle Nunzio (his own pronouncement in the third person) has regularly been seen shaking his fist at seagulls after tagging his fastidiously detailed 1964 Morris Minor and shouting Asssino or Terrorista.

    He has yet to make the connection between him feed them and their pelting his car with niblets.

    (Oh yes I did)

  9. Hi Michael,

    I am sensitive on this issue, having been accused of same in circumstances you outlined above, so that’s probably why I didn’t get the irony–sorry about that. And I agree with Mespo that Niblet is needlessly provacative. This wears thin quickly. I know he represents the veiwpoint of many of our fellow citizens, so I wish he would make an argument instead of trying to start one.

    Thanks for hearing me out.


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