The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Our implementation of that simple principle is complex. Our Constitution, designed in the late 1700s and amended 27 times, mandates a representative democracy; but who gets to be represented? Many voters do not realize that each state establishes its own voting rules. In the first few elections, it was almost exclusively white, male, Protestant landowners — a few percent of the nation’s population — who were eligible to vote. Try to imagine the impact on today’s political landscape if most states still denied the vote to women, nonproperty owners and citizens of many races and religions.
The Electoral College, an intermediate step in the presidential election process, was intended by the Founding Fathers to act as a safeguard against the election of — in the words of Alexander Hamilton — “any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” I believe that the Electoral College has spectacularly failed to serve its intended purpose.
It fails, because it has a fatal flaw. The intention was to give states, through their electors, an emergency ability to override the popular vote if necessary. But that requires electors who can be trusted to put the good of the republic ahead of absolutely everything else. While the founders’ intent may have been laudable, the sorry fact is that electors are chosen from the ranks of party functionaries and political operatives. Other than the tiny handful of exceptions described below, they clearly understand that they were selected solely to validate their party’s candidate, not to serve some higher purpose.
Election law expert Richard Winger notes that in electing our 45th president, the Electoral College made history in several ways. When it met Dec. 19, 2016, there were votes for seven individuals for president — the most since 1796! Twenty states do not legally require electors to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state. Seven of the 538 electors did not vote for their state’s winner. That’s the highest total ever for president; and for the first time, there were one or more such electors from each major party. Some of the “faithless” electors were from states where their faithlessness is technically illegal. Whether they will face consequences is unclear, but lawsuits have been filed to challenge whether presidential electors actually have the right to cast their vote for anyone at all who meets the legal requirements for becoming president.
Can our present government claim to have the consent of the governed? Being faithful to that principle will require us to recognize that the current process often does not respect the views of the majority of our citizens.
Reginald Neale is a Farmington author and political observer.