Monday, December 12, 2016

How American Presidents Are Selected: Beyond Russian Interference

Most delegates in the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 recognized the value of constitutional safeguards against excess democracy, or mob rule. The U.S. House of Representatives was to be the only democratically elected federal institution—the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court, and even the U.S. Presidency were to be filled by the state legislatures, the U.S. President and U.S. Senate, and electors elected by citizens, respectively. The people were to be represented in the U.S. House and the State governments in the U.S. Senate. The Constitutional Amendment in the early twentieth century that made U.S. senators selected by the people rather than the governments of the States materially unbalanced the original design. In terms of the selection of the U.S. president by electors, the political parties captured them such that whichever party’s candidate wins a State, the electors there are those of the winning party. Even if the electors could vote contrary to the popular vote in a State, such voting could only be a rare exception given the party-control. Hence the electors have not been able to function as intended—as a check against excess democracy. The case of Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016 presents an additional use for the Electoral College, were it to function as designed and intended. Of course, this is a huge assumption to make, even just in taking into account the American mentality regarding self-governance.

Suppose, for example, that a presidential election were to take place only months after an attack by another country, such as the one at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The American people might be inclined to vote for whichever candidate has promised to nuke the belligerent power off the face of the Earth. Clearly, such a knee-jerk reaction would not be in the best interest of the American people. Were the electors in the Electoral College free of party-affiliation as well as any law requiring them to vote according to their State’s popular vote in the “presidential election” (i.e., actually for the electors), the electors of the College could elect another candidate—one not so inclined to beat the war drum to capitalize on the momentary passions of the people.

In short, American voters elect electors by state, and said electors in turn then meet in their respective state capitols to cast votes for president roughly a month later—that being the actual presidential election. This system reflects the delegates' fear that the masses voting directly would be risky because people have difficulty resisting their immediate passions. Demagogues running for office can too easily take advantage of the ignorance and inattention of the electorate, especially when the “campaign season” lasts 14 months!

That a population even as large as 7 million in the U.S. in 1789, and even more one of 310 million in 2016, must depend on the media for information on candidates—it being extremely unlikely that all but a tiny fraction of the people could meet the candidates—adds merit to the value of having electors whose task it is to act as a check on deficiencies in a democratic election on such a scale. As for the number of electors in the Electoral College, each State has as many as the total number of its U.S. senators and U.S. House representatives. The number is few enough that the electors could actually meet the candidates in person and question them. Additionally, the electors could more feasibly have access to information on the candidates and even U.S. intel. In voting for these electors, the American people would be voting for people whose judgment is deemed to be up to the task.

So it is fitting, given the purpose and design of the Electoral College, that the electors could receive U.S. intel on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta, supported a proposal that electors be given “an intelligence briefing on alleged political interference by Russia.”[1] A group of 10 electors had written to the Director of National Intelligence to request a briefing. Those electors cited their role as a “deliberative body” designed in part to prevent foreign powers from trying to influence elections.[2] Although I am not aware of any direct reference to foreign interference as an explicit reason for the Electoral College in the Constitutional Convention (via Madison’s Notes), the rationale can fall within the broader one of the College serving as a check on deficiencies in the presidential election (i.e., the election of electors by the American people).

As the American people themselves selected the electors to in turn select the federal president, the extant federal officials, as agents of the People, were duty-bound to defer to the electors for such a purpose bearing on the task of electing the next president. It is up to the electors to decide whether any new information gained after the presidential election warrants the selection of someone other than the candidate whose party controls the majority of the electors (i.e., “won” the Electoral College). It does not necessarily follow that the electors should select the candidate who came in second.

Hypothetically, events taking place between the “presidential election” and the electors’ own vote could warrant the election of another candidate than the one who “won” the electoral college. New information on either of the major candidates could also justify such an outcome. The overall point, or aim, is that the best possible selection is made for the United States and its people. Holding to popular vote, whether by State or nationwide, pales in comparison, and is not necessarily optimal. One delegate, for instance, argued at the Convention that “the people at large . . . will never be sufficiently informed of characters.”[3] Another delegate said, “The people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men.”[4] That delegate felt this problem so grave that “the popular mode of electing the [president] would certainly be worst of all.”[5] Still another delegate argued that the selection of the president should be “by those who know most of the eminent characters & qualifications,” not “by those who know least”—meaning millions of people across an empire.[6] Such delegates were not themselves government officials, so the recognition of the limitations of a popular election by people like themselves is itself awe-inspiringly humble. For a people to recognize its own deficiencies and design safeguards even at the expense of their own future electoral preferences renders such a people worthy of self-government. Maturity, in addition to being educated and virtuous as Jefferson and Adams insisted, is requisite for self-governance.

I submit that Americans in 2016 were overwhelmingly—and conveniently—deficient in governmental maturity. Instead of a willingness to face their own complicity in standing by or enabling as presidential campaigns had become so sordid and devoid of policy or even debate, a blind charge could be heard immediately after the election toward a new system based on an unprotected, and thus vulnerable, (nationwide) popular vote. Legitimacy supposedly hung in the balance, and the People could not be wrong. So it is ironic that the need for safeguards against the electorate itself were so easily dismissed. In other words, it is nothing short of astonishing that such an electorate would assume that an overhaul was not necessary on how presidents are selected and, moreover, that no safeguards would be needed for going by a nationwide majority vote. The underlying problem can be put as a question: Does a people that refuses to recognize the need for safeguards on itself, even for its own protection (i.e., in its own best interest) deserve self-government? Can such government function for long without the electorate being willing and able to keep their system of government in good condition? What if a people cannot recognize brokenness, whether in itself or in how its president is selected? Can such a people self-govern for long?

It is much easier to focus on foreign interference than to be willing to recognize deficiencies much closer to home. Taking the most comfortable route, rather than making difficult choices, is lethal for a viable republic especially when the lack of character is combined with ignorance as to what constitutes good and bad public-governance systems. It is particularly revealing that a people most in need of safeguards is most apt to make the convenient assumption that they are not necessary. The rise and fall of mammoth empires is the stuff of history. Every empire in history has come and gone. The fall of even a modern-day empire can come from within, as from a squalid mentality that absolves itself of even the possibility of being wrong about itself. This, I submit, is the American blight, and plight.


[1] Cody Derespina, “Clinton Campaign Backs Call for Electors to Get Trump-Russia Intel Briefing,” Fox News, December 12, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966): 306.
[4] Ibid., 327.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 405.