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It's Time: Direct Election of Our President
Open To Thinking, A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2017-01-04

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A funny thing happened to me as I was preparing to write this op-ed. I went looking for this thing called 'the electoral college' which everyone wants to abolish or defend or reform but I could not find it.

The U.S. Constitution speaks of 'electors.' It does not in any way speak of an electoral college—the term 'college of electors' appears officially in federal codes for the first time in 1845. ( SEE: Wikipedia: Electoral College. )

What I did find was a mechanism established by our Constitution for electing the president and vice-president of the United States of America. This mechanism has been modified many times by amendments to make it seemingly more democratic and more fitting for our changing society.

The basic elements of this mechanism, as established by the Constitution, are still in place: The legislature of each state may choose presidential electors in accordance with its own criteria. The presidential electors are state based, state controlled, and meet briefly on a fixed day in that state. There is no assembly of members in communication with one another or across state lines—just this one brief meeting when they vote. There is no enforceable requirement that the electors must vote in accordance with the results of the popular vote in their respective states. ( See www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/electors.html . )

Even when the state stipulates that the electors must pledge to vote for the candidate of the party they represent, currently there is no sanction applied to the electors that disobey their party or do not honor the pledges they make to support a specific candidate. In our 2016 presidential election, seven electors broke their promises and successfully voted for candidates to whom they were not pledged.

Perversely, in most states political parties currently control who can be a candidate for the office of elector—something Madison and Hamilton, among notable others, adamantly opposed. They wanted electors to be free agents interested in the common good not subject to party politics or the pressures of private interests.

I have asked several intelligent, educated citizens, some of them political science majors in college, to explain to me our mechanism for 'electing' our president and vice-president. As they struggled to explain how it works, I kept getting the image of a Rube Goldberg contraption performing a simple task in as complicated a manner as possible.

These good citizens kept getting stuck on such issues as: How can we reconcile the democratic moral and legal principles of 'one man = one vote' and 'the winner of the popular vote should not lose the election' with our electoral system—questions of values not just mechanics.

In the beginning, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, James Wilson of Pennsylvania and James Madison of Virginia wanted the president to be elected directly by popular vote. Slave states and others objected because they feared political domination by more populous, more powerful New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. There might have been some good reasons for establishing this cumbersome presidential electors mechanism—one of which being that otherwise there would not have been a United States of America at all. ( Read: Madison, Federalist 10 and 39, and Hamilton, Federalist 68. ) Today, however, the very nature of our society has changed profoundly.

We no longer have slaves. Women can vote. Men of all colors can vote. You do not have to be a property owner to vote. Our citizens are highly mobile, born in one state, raised in another, educated in another. Many of us—our intense commitment to local community and neighborhood notwithstanding—live and work in two or three states at one time.

Our 'Electoral College' is no longer a useful mechanism for getting us a president and for protecting and nourishing our democratic republic. It itself has become the problem rather than the solution.

Madison and Hamilton would agree.

© nicholas.patricca@gmail.com

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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