This past Sunday, I was watching CBS Sunday Morning when once again I was confronted with someone who completely missed the point of one of the key aspects of our Constitution: The Electoral College. Commentator Mo Rocca had a story on the Electoral College and it so totally missed the point of the Founders, that is was tragic. Not surprisingly, Rocca told a story that implied that the Electoral College was dumb and useless. He even used little schoolchildren to demonstrate his point that the College is, to him, pointless. He made the larger argument that we should be directly choosing our president, and that when we don't, it's silly. To Rocca, and probably millions of other confused (or poorly taught) Americans, the president is obviously supposed to be our personal representative, thus we should choose this person.
The Founders NEVER saw the president as someone that represented the citizens or stood in their places as a representative. Instead, to the Founders, the president was supposed to be someone slightly detached from the passions and zealotry of "the masses" and provide a more, reasoned, comprehensive approach of, well, someone who is an executive. Note, this is NOT to say that the Founders didn't think the people needed a voice, a representative. So, the Founders provided the citizens their own house -- the House of Representatives. For the House, we are to vote directly for someone to represent us. The Founders even thought this House was so critical that they were given control of the nation's budget.
Rocca also went down the very familiar path of arguing that since we are a Democracy, we should get a direct vote for our national leader. Again, wrong -- not only are we NOT a Democracy (we are a REPUBLIC. Don't believe me, then read the words of President Madison), but the founders strongly disliked the ideas of Democracy. To try and bolster his point, Rocca used a quote from President Jefferson; this statement merely demonstrates my point in that Rocca would not have uncovered evidence that any other Founder agreed with our third president. Instead, what they believed was that the people are far too easily misled and thus not as qualified to pick the nation's chief executive. Moreover, their great fear was that the people, once misled, would follow the path of other Democracies and descend into turbulence, violence or contention.
The funny thing was that the Sunday Morning Show gave evidence to the Founders' fear when they reported "Just the facts", that both presidential campaigns (and by extension, almost all candidates running for any political office) lie or distort the truth. The reporter interviewed many of the "fact checker" websites who monitor statements made during the campaigns. One person interviewed said that the candidates will continue to lie or twist the truth because it works -- people are moved and impacted by what is said. Hence, the Founders' vision that the people aren't really in a good position to properly judge who really should lead becomes self-evident.
So, what was the point of the Electoral College? Perhaps the best answer is to simply state that the Founders did not trust politics or government, and as such, wanted to keep power dispersed and local, close to the people. In other words, the Electoral College is a "more elegant weapon for a more civilized age." In former days, the Founders knew that we needed protection from the excesses of the masses and from those who had too much money or power who could use information against us. The Electors were NEVER meant to operate as some mass, i.e., all electors from a state having to vote the will of the people; instead, the idea of an elector was that each would be an intelligent person, someone able to look past the hype and choose a good leader for the country. If you ever look at the earliest elections up to the 1830s, you will see that more than two people received electoral votes.
How to bring the president (and also the senator's, in the original, elegant Constitution) closer, more local? You put their choice into the hands of each state's legislature. The idea was that each state legislator would be more answerable to the citizens who would know where they lived. Remember, this was merely 20-30 years from the upheaval of the Revolution when houses were burned down and 'tar and feathering' was a real threat. While today we certainly don't want some local political leader to have their house burned down, clearly they must be more responsive to the voters from their district. Here in Florida, for instance, a state legislator represents about 130,000 of my local residents. Compare that to a senator here who represents over 20 million people. Which of the two, my state legislator or my state U.S. senator, is going to hear my voice better --the person listening to 130,000+ or the one listening to 20,000,000+? And, in case you are wondering, each U.S. House of Representatives rep covers almost 700,000.
Since the state legislature was supposed to pick the electors (and the senators), if I thought they did poorly, I could very easily express my opinion to someone who I knew had to value my thoughts -- my local statehouse representative. My voice will be lost amid 20 million Florida citizens, but among 130,000, where about 50 percent don't even vote, my voice is loud and clear.
The Founders' point was that there needed to be a way for us to have a chief executive who did answer to the people through the states, but not one who had to somehow participate in a popularity contest. Often, the best leader must make decisions and choices that the majority simply will not like. The Founders wanted to have a leader who would do that with few fears as to what the people might think.
Mo's attack on the very system that has provided us this 220+ year longevity is just one other reason that so many hate or distrust this critical aspect of our Constitution. What would have been better would have been a CBS story actually explaining the logic behind the founders' decision... a logic that is crystal and powerful.
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