You will no doubt be delighted to hear that this column is NOT about politics! If you are like me, you are becoming tired of the whole process.
With only a couple of weeks until the general election, our home phone gets a multitude of pre-recorded calls from candidates every day, a similar number of texts on our cell phones, and I pity our poor USPS mail lady who has to deliver so much paper to our mailbox. We have both taken advantage of the super well-organized and socially distanced early voting facility in Richmond Hill at the recreation center, so we don’t need any more information about the election! As a naturalized American citizen, I am very proud to cast my vote here.
The British have always had a fascination about its most successful ex-colony, and while growing up in England in the 1970s and 80s, there was always a lot of interest in all things American – movies, culture, fashion, politics, and pretty much everything else. About that time, Hollywood, publishing houses, and most other US businesses really starting seeing the opportunity in a large foreign market that spoke the same language, so each side of the Atlantic got a lot of attention from the other.
Every four years when an American Presidential Election rolled around, there were several attempts in the UK to explain the role of the Electoral College in US politics. Now that I am American and live in beautiful Coastal Georgia, I see that a great deal is written about the system this side of the pond too.
As I understand it, the mechanics of the Electoral College (college used in the old fashion way meaning an organized group of people with goals and duties) are simple enough. It is a body of electors established by the United States Constitution. They meet every four years for just one purpose – to elect the President and the Vice President of the United States. Each state gets the number of electors that it has representing them in the Senate and the House of Representatives, plus three for the District of Columbia. So that equals 538 electors in total, and an absolute majority of 270 or more is required to win the election. While there are a lot of details about how they are chosen and how they should vote, the common practice is for them to vote along with the popular vote of their state, which almost always happens.
I am a lover of history, and majored in the subject at University, and the establishment of the United States of America is an amazing story, unlike any other in the history of humanity. Our Founding Fathers were not just patriots, they were arguably the smartest and most thoughtful group of people in the world at that time. They designed a constitutional, federalist republic structure that had checks and balances, strived for a stable government, focused on the liberty of its citizens, would stand up to the tests of time, and tried to mitigate the worst of possibilities within a democracy in which a straight majority dominated. They were firsthand witnesses to bloody revolution and had seen the speed and fervor with which a majority could ride rough-shod over a minority in the running of some of the individual colonies at that time.
Some democracies do not directly elect the leader of their executive branch, such as the land of my birth, in which the party with the most seats in the House of Commons (roughly equivalent to the US House of Representatives) chooses the leader. In others, a straight “one person, one vote” system rules. The Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College as an ingrained part of the Constitution as a compromise between those who wanted the president to be elected by members of Congress and those who wanted a president elected by a popular vote. The feeling was that the Electoral College would determine the sense of the people in its choice, even if not always in line with the popular vote. There have been only five presidential elections in which the winner did not get the most popular votes, although one was of course the highly contentious contest of 2016.
While it is always easy to argue to switch to a straight popular vote system, the big advantage of the Electoral College is its geographic dimension which requires candidates to appeal to all voters, not just those in the large cities. Campaigning across the whole of the country forces political parties to develop platforms with truly national appeal, not just urban appeal within populous states. Supporters of the Electoral College are always quick with the argument “Do you want New York and California to just pick the President?” While this is a bit over simplistic, it would certainly be more directionally logical if you included Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania into the question.
But of course, the biggest argument for the Electoral College is that it is the only way outlined in the in the constitution to pick a president. To change it would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate plus the approval of three-quarters of the states, or a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures (which has never happened). So, I think it is safe to say that the Electoral College will be picking our presidents for some time to come, no matter how extreme the rhetoric becomes following heated elections.
Allen Guelzo, writing in National Affairs magazine, argues that the Electoral college has been key to contributing to the stability, liberty, and legitimacy of the US Government, and in the choice of who leads our country’s Executive Branch. He says: “If anything, the Electoral College was designed to act as a brake on over-mighty presidents, who might use a popular majority to claim that they were authorized to speak for the people against Congress.” My own view is that the reason that this sounds a bit dramatic to us today is because our Founding Fathers really got it right 244 years ago!
God Bless America! Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.