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Did the framers trust the People? In contrast to what is claimed, they did - fully. Just a quick reading of their writings would clearly demonstrate this fact, but even more importantly, even a casual study of both the federal and State constitutions demonstrate their trust in the People by the numerous provisions that place great powers in the hands of the citizens. Thomas Jefferson represented this position quite eloquently when he wrote:
"The people, being the only safe depository of power, should exercise in person every function which their qualifications enable them to exercise consistently with the order and security of society. We now find them equal to the election of those who shall be invested with their executive and legislative powers, and to act themselves in the judiciary as judges in questions of fact. The range of their powers ought to be enlarged."
On the other hand, they also feared too great a concentration of power in any location; regionally, or in the federal government. The separation of powers was an essential mechanism to help prevent the consolidation of government and the growth of a centralized, despotic tyranny to which all governments are susceptible. Jefferson has most often been referred to as a champion of states' rights, but his top priority was not necessarily the rights of the States themselves, but rather, it was to build a government with a proper division of powers in order to prevent the destruction of liberty that would certainly result from the growth of a centralized government bureaucracy.
One of the ways the framers tried to protect the American people from an over-centralized government was by balancing power between the sovereign people and the sovereign States. In their plan, one body of the Legislature was meant to represent the will of the majority nationwide, and the other was meant to represent the will of the majority as determined by the States. The electoral college, however effective, was an attempt to replicate this balance of powers in the election process.
My goal in this current study is to first analyze the Electoral College as it stands today; to then examine a number of proposed alternatives; and finally, to arrive at a conclusion as to which system will best ensure our liberty! As mentioned in my last paper, there are a number of reasons people give as opposition to the Electoral College; and I intend to discuss the first two here.
The first point of contention is often the potential for faithless electors. These are electors who vote for a candidate other than who that vote is pledged to. On the one hand, the Constitution has never required electors to vote for any particular candidate, and a reading of it would make it quite clear that the framers created a system where they hoped for a group of electors that would use their discretion to choose the candidates they viewed as best-qualified. This system is still intact today, and even though electors are aligned with specific candidates, it has been anything but unordinary for one to occasionally vote for someone other than the candidate chosen by a state's voters.
In response to this complaint, one must note that faithless electors have never changed the outcome of an election. But, we mustn't be concerned only with what has happened, but what has the potential to happen as well. While it may never occur, there does remain the possibility of a close electoral vote in which one or a few electors casting ballots in contravention to the vote of electorate could change the outcome of an election.
If the possibility of a faithless elector exists, I would contend that a free society would want to eliminate this potential fiasco. It would be quite easy to solve this problem without a complete abolition of the Electoral College system. Since the individual electors are not essential to its operation, an easy resolution would be to eliminate them in favor of a simple mathematical equation. Therefore, on its own, this issue is not great enough to warrant abolishing the Electoral College.
The second allegation commonly used to oppose the Electoral College is that it depresses voter turnout. Opponents claim that since each State is entitled to a set number of electoral votes no matter what the voter turnout, there is not incentive for the states to encourage voter participation. These opponents state that the college may even be counterproductive, and that the states may even have an incentive to discourage participation so that a minority would have the power to determine the electoral vote for the entire state.
While this argument has a certain amount of plausibility, it fails to account for the fact that it has only been in the last half-century of this two-hundred year-old system that voter turnout has dropped significantly. Therefore, the Electoral College system itself cannot be rightly looked to as the primary cause after years of success in relation to voter turnout.
I would venture to guess that a more logical reason for low voter turnout is both our current educational system and the concurrent rise of power in the central government. In regards to education, it is a widely-known fact that an alarmingly low number of our country's colleges and universities require not even a single course in American history! Some casual study would also demonstrate that citizens who understand the basic operations of their own government are now far from the norm. If the Electoral College is now too difficult for the People at large to understand, it would be more reasonable to deduce that this is the result of our faulty education system than the college itself.
An even greater cause of low turnout in presidential elections is clearly the nature of the executive branch, nay, the entire federal government itself! As it has grown into an immense bureaucracy of historic proportions, the People have nearly lost touch with its operation. With the onset of federal taxation, heavy business regulation, countless volumes of federal laws, and the like, the People have been reduced from their intended status as the nation's constituent sovereign into mere subjects of an empire. In recent years, great numbers of people, realizing the utter futility in voting for candidates of either controlling political party, have found their only comfort in refusing to support both by not voting at all.
Abolition of the Electoral College cannot have any long-term impact on increasing voter turnout, as the primary cause and effect is to be found simply in the amount of power each vote carries. An immense central government dictating to the People gives the individual vote very little to no impact. Only when governmental power is drastically reduced will the People feel empowered by their votes. Then, and only then, will voter turnout rise significantly.
I will continue this examination of the arguments against, and then for, the Electoral College in my next paper on June 15, 2006. In leaving, I encourage you to reflect upon these words from James Madison:
"The Constitution is nicely balanced with the federative and popular principles; the Senate are the guardians of the former, and the House of Representatives of the latter; and any attempts to destroy this balance, under whatever specious names or pretences they may be presented, should be watched with a jealous eye."
In the spirit of liberty and prosperity,
This essay is the 30th edition of the series, The Populist Papers. Written anonymously to promote discussion of the principles alone, these essays attempt to both explain the complexities of government, and determine the proper place of a federal government based on the inherent rights of all people. Feedback is welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org