The irony of the Electoral College


Views from Oberlin John Elder


In Federalist Paper 68, Alexander Hamilton presents some of his arguments for the necessity of what has come to be known as the “Electoral College.”

By a strange quirk, Hamilton’s chief reasons have been nullified by the perversion, over time, of the elector system into the very opposite of what the Constitution intended — to prevent the election of a candidate like Donald Trump!

In defense of the presidential election process drafted by our founding fathers, Hamilton argued, “It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”

By “the sense of the people” he meant the popular vote in contrast to the choice of a particular group of elected officials (such as the method, until 1913, of state legislatures electing U. S. Senators). Hamilton worried that a person with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity” might be elected to “the distinguished office of President of the United States,” rather than a “character pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” He said that “the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.” He considered the thoughtful decision-making by an independent “intermediate body of electors” rather than by a body of office-holders to be less vulnerable to corruption and less apt to “convulse the community.”

However, the popular vote, state by state, was not the only factor the electors were expected to take into consideration. The electors were to be people of discernment, capable of “analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.” “Acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation,” they were to take account of a “judicious combination” of the many elements they needed to consider in determining their choice of president.

Hamilton said the founders were particularly concerned about foreign governments influencing the new nation’s presidential election. “Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”

Recent commentators on the Electoral College have mostly skipped over this argument. After all, what “foreign power” would actually try to influence to the election of the U.S. president? That is, until 2016! Most of the questions in President Barack Obama’s final press conference centered on exactly this point, and the president rightly chastised the press for amplifying the negative effect of the Russian hacking of Democratic National Convention and Podesta emails on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, while failing to focus on the likelihood that a foreign power was trying to influence the election.

If the electors had been functioning as the founding fathers intended, instead of being bound either by tradition or, as it is now in states including Ohio, by law to vote in their particular state on a “winner take all” basis (Maine and Nebraska being the two exceptions), they would surely have considered both the nationwide popular vote and the influence of the Vladimir Putin regime on the election as they decided who should be president for the next four years.

Alexander Hamilton’s concern in the Federalist Papers was to persuade the states to adopt the Constitution. He said that for the drafters, “It was… peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.”

Perhaps we will never be able to judge whether on Dec. 19, 2016, the electors could have afforded less “opportunity… to tumult and disorder” by acting as the Constitution intended and choosing a more qualified person than Donald Trump as president. But I have no doubt that Hamilton would have been horrified that they failed to perform the very task he conceived they alone could do for the sake of the nation!

John Elder was pastor of the First Church in Oberlin UCC from 1973 to 1991 and has been a Kendal at Oberlin resident since 2007. The Views from Oberlin group writes and peer-reviews columns on major issues.

Views from Oberlin John Elder
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