I will read all comments, gratefully—-as I have done over the last two weeks, and I appreciate the feedback. As always, please keep in mind that A More Perfect Constitution is not intended to be the end of the argument, but the beginning. Any Constitutional changes must be considered in the most careful and deliberative manner, and most amendments--and certainly a Constitutional Convention--might well be a generation away. It would be wonderful if those of you with comments and further ideas for change could register them at www.amoreperfectconstitution.com. Add your '24th Proposal' to the 23 offered in the book. Actually, you can add another 23 if you wish!
I also invite those who will be in Washington, D.C. this Friday, October 19, 2007 to join us for the "National Constitutional Convention" to be held at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue. Among our speakers for the day are Donna Brazile, Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Weddington, Nadine Strossen, Bob Dole and Justice Samuel Alito. The convention is free, but all attendees are asked to register in advance so we can get a lunch count. To register, please visit www.amoreperfectconstitution.com and click on the "National Constitutional Convention" icon at the bottom of the front page.
Thanks to Markos for the forum and sincere thanks to all participants. --Larry Sabato
Last week, I discussed changes for the first half of the presidential selection system. The second half of the presidential electoral process is also in need of constitutional reform. This week, I offer my thoughts on how to update the Electoral College to fit the needs of a twenty-first century republic.
The 2000 election cliffhanger between George W. Bush and Al Gore was only the latest crisis to beset the constitutional mechanism for the election of a president, the Electoral College. There have been other Electoral College controversies, including the presidential elections of 1800, 1824, 1876, and 1888. In those elections—-just as in 2000-—the popular vote winner was denied the presidency because of a contrary Electoral College vote. In those elections—-just as in 2000-—there were political shenanigans of various sorts that further clouded the results. Many analysts and observers of American politics say that this record, and the very real potential for more mayhem in the future, calls for outright abolition of the Electoral College in the next constitutional revision. But these critics ignore some important advantages of the Electoral College, which deserves more respect than it gets. At the same time, the current system is inadequate to the needs of the modern Republic, so a proper approach is "Mend it, don’t end it."
It did not take long for the Electoral College to stir controversy. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson ran against incumbent President John Adams. Jefferson and his ticket mate, Aaron Burr, came out on top in the Electoral College. At that time, each elector voted for two men, and the top two vote-getters were supposed to serve as president and vice president. But the Jefferson electors had voted for both men, so Jefferson and Burr each had 73 of 138 electoral votes. While Burr had been the choice for vice president and not president, his political ambition kept him from stepping aside. It took thirty-six ballots in the U.S. House of Representatives—-with votes cast by state delegations as a whole, not by individual members—-to select Thomas Jefferson as our third president. This fiasco prompted the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which, among other provisions, requires electors to vote for presidential and vice presidential candidates separately.
More than two centuries later, despite the many controversies that have engulfed presidential elections, the Twelfth Amendment still marks the most significant change to the Electoral College in all of American history—-a fact that alone suggests that some rethinking may be in order. In the 1960s, the Twenty-third Amendment granted three electoral votes to the District of Columbia. Other amendments have primarily altered the timing of the electoral vote tabulation and the way in which individual states choose to allocate their electors. Despite these small changes, the Electoral College today works much as it has since the 1800s. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present...As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." The political system of the 21st Century needs an injection of new thinking. My three proposals serve just such a purpose for the Electoral College.
First, abolish the threat of faithless electors, electors who don’t follow their pledge to vote for the candidate their state has chosen. Make the position of elector a strictly honorary one. The political parties could still offer these posts to their staunchest members, but the individuals would not need to make a trek to the statehouse (except perhaps for some sort of ceremony) and they would not cast an actual vote. Instead, each state’s electoral votes would be cast automatically for the winner of the certified popular vote in the state. Surely, this is one change that cannot be very controversial. The political parties will be able to keep these prestigious patronage posts to reward loyal party activists—-the honorary position of elector will remain a résumé enhancer for those selected-—but the nation need not worry about an illegitimate president produced by electors who arbitrarily decide to abandon their solemn pledge to back the people’s candidate.
The second reform, which would also be nearly universally welcomed, would apply whenever the election of a president is thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives, due to the failure of any candidate to secure a majority of electoral votes. Fortunately, this unwelcome event has only occurred twice in American history, in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1824. In 1800, the nation narrowly avoided being deprived of the signal presidency of Thomas Jefferson, and having Aaron Burr substituted instead. In 1824 the machinations in the House resulting in the election of John Quincy Adams as president literally ruined Adams’ one term.
The worst aspect of the House selection process is the unit rule, which mandates that each state shall cast one vote for president, irrespective of the state’s size, with a majority of states (twenty-six) being required for the election of a chief executive. So Wyoming (population 505,887) would have the same weight as California (population 35,842,038) in selecting the occupant of the White House for four years. The easiest, most sensible reform is to abolish the unit rule, and let every U.S. representative cast a ballot as he or she sees fit—-a ballot for which each member of the House will be held accountable by the constituency at the next election. A good case can be made for preserving the Electoral College as a bulwark of federalism, but the House unit rule in presidential elections is federalism taken to a destructive extreme.
My third proposal is to expand the size of the Electoral College. Should the changes to the U.S. Senate that I advocate in the book (and will propose here next week) be adopted, with larger states gaining U.S. senators, then the tally in the Electoral College would automatically change in the correct direction. This reallocation of Senate seats would add electoral votes to the heavily populated states and thus help to maximize the opportunity for the popular-vote winner to capture the presidency, while preserving the wonderful college advantage of isolating recounts in close elections to one or a few states. In that sense, expanding the Senate to account for population would send two birds—-both outdated constitutional pterodactyls—-into well-deserved extinction. The Senate would become more representative of the electorate, and the Electoral College simultaneously would as well.
If the expansion of the Senate proves politically or constitutionally impossible, there is another sound means to accomplish the very same goal in the Electoral College. The college itself could be directly enlarged, and the new electoral votes distributed among the heavily populated states to more closely reflect actual population. In addition to the 538 electoral votes currently allocated among the nation's fifty states and the District of Columbia, this proposal would give states additional electoral votes based on their percentage of the national population. With the specific method I put forward in my book (which I won’t go into here, but which is explained in great detail), this new version of the Electoral College would have closely paralleled President Bush’s 3-million vote plurality over Democratic senator John Kerry. But the real test would have come four years earlier, in the squeaker election of 2000. It would have produced an Electoral College result that more closely reflected the popular vote, and would have sent the 2000 election to the House. As we have suggested above, a House selection of the president isn’t the ideal solution, but one could argue that in 2000 the people’s House might have conferred more legitimacy upon the nascent Bush presidency than a 5-to-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.
For a system as inherently complex as the Electoral College, any changes are difficult to comprehend. There are really only two ways to better understand them: first, this video. Second, the painstaking research that went into my forming each of these proposals is presented in the chapter on political reforms in my new book. If something here seems obtuse or confusing, please, go pick up a copy! Even if you disagree with what I’ve said, the important thing is that you’ll have a strong base of facts on which to formulate your own argument.
(Footnote by kos: An intro to this project can be found here. You can read some of his other proposals here. He'll be discussing other proposals from his book in the coming weeks. No money or other consideration has exchanged hands to get these pieces promoted to the front page.)