What Happened in 2016?  (I)

The Electoral College delivered a wake-up call

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In the autumn of 1787, citizens of the thirteen American states operating under the Articles of Confederation began discussing ratification of the Constitution drafted over the summer in Philadelphia by their representatives. They debated, among other things, whether so large a country as envisaged by the framers could be expected to hold together.

Almost immediately, anti-federalist opponents of ratification launched attacks on various aspects of the agreement.  Alexander Hamilton recruited James Madison and John Jay to write with him a series of essays in support. The Federalist No. 1 appeared in the Independent Journal, in New York, on October 27, followed by 76 more, to be published the next spring with eight other essays as The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States.

A week before, the New-York Journal carried what we would now call an op-ed signed by an anti-federalist under the pen name Brutus.  He wrote:

 The different parts of so extensive a country could not possibly be made acquainted with the conduct of their representatives, nor be informed of the reasons on which measures were founded.  The consequence will be, they will have no confidence in their legislature, suspect them of ambitious views, be jealous of every measure they adopt, and will not support the laws they pass.

In November, Madison took to the pages of the New York Packet to rebut Brutus. The “mischiefs of factions,” meaning groups of citizens united by some passion or interest adverse to the rights of others, couldn’t be eliminated without destroying liberty. Madison wrote. After all, different opinions were in the nature of humankind – about religion and government, wealth and power, banking and commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. If factions couldn’t be eliminated, you could at least hope to curb their violence.

How? By reducing both the impulse to do mischief and the opportunity to misbehave. Republican government, small numbers of citizens elected by the rest to serve as legislators, could raise the tone above that of the appeal to mob emotion to be expected of pure democracy.

A larger country, with more people choosing each representative, could do the rest.  “Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests,” he wrote. Great issues would ascend to the national stage; local issues would remain the business of the states. Factions would oppose factions, and the more extensive of whatever unjust majorities might arise, the greater would be the likelihood that the thieves among them would fall out.

Madison continued: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district than an entire State.”

Madison’s essay, The Federalist No 10, is famous today as among the most influential of the collection. In The Federalist No. 39, he went on to elaborate his view that the Constitution would assure both a democracy in which all citizens had a voice and a republic in which a complicated system of checks and balances obtained between the states and the national government – “a federal, not a national, Constitution.”

All this is fresh in mind because I read recently about Brutus’s essay in The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, (Princeton, 2020), by David Stasavage, of New York University.  “What if Madison was wrong about large Republics,” Stasavage asks.  What about the problem of mistrust of a distant state? What if the nation’s factions become so various and mutually antagonistic as to prove ungovernable?

Madison himself quickly came to recognize that there would have to be continuing investments to insure that citizens would continue to trust their government.  By 1791, he was pursuing measures to support newspapers and subsidize their circulation.  Reformers who came later proposed state-funded public education.

But public education is under fire today, and the tiered structure of the newspaper industry has suffered greatly since the proliferation of digital media and the invention of search advertising.  National newspapers – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Financial Times  – continue to grow in influence and circulation.   They have been joined by digital media – Bloomberg, Reuters, Axios, and Quartz.

But the fortunes of once-important metropolitan newspapers have declined precipitously, among them Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post, Atlanta Constitution, San Jose Mercury-News, and Providence Journal. Just last week, a New Jersey hedge-fund  acquired at a bankruptcy auction the 163-year-old McClatchy Company, publisher of the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Charlotte Observer, and its flagship Sacramento Bee.

Here we are, some 235 years since Madison wrote The Federalist 10, the thirteen states having grown to fifty states, with the District of Columbia petitioning to be declared a state.  What is holding the country together?  Tradition. of course, and culture: but institutionally, the answer seems to me to be the Electoral College – an ill-understood and frequently maligned invention of the framers. As Madison described it in The Federalist 39, “The executive power will be derived from a very compound source.”

The Electoral College emerged from the Connecticut Compromise, sometimes called the Great Compromise of 1787, which produced the bicameral Congress of the United States:  proportional representation of the states by population in the House of Representatives, equal representation among the states in the Senate (two senators  apiece), with the power to initiate taxing and spending measures reserved to the House.  The election of the president follows the combination of state-based and population-based decision-making. Electoral votes are allocated to the states by the most recent census; but in almost all states, the winner of the popular votes takes the electoral votes.

Three elections in 25 years have demonstrated the significance of the Electoral College. In the 1992 election, H. Ross Perot received 19 percent of the popular vote, but didn’t win a single state and thus earned no electoral votes.  In the 2000 election, litigation before the Supreme Court tipped the election to George W Bush, after the Court decided he had won a hair’s-breadth majority in Florida.  His margin in the Electoral College was thus 271 to 266, though his Democratic rival Al Gore edged him in the popular vote by around half a million of more than 100 million votes cast.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump won precisely because of the Electoral College. With more than 120 million votes cast, some 107,000 votes in three “battleground” states of the Old Northwest– Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – provided his margin of victory 306-232 in the Electoral College. Had those states swung the other way, Clinton would have won, 278-260. She won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, 65.9 million to 63 million.

The Framers conceived of the Electoral College as essential to the federal structure of government. It forces candidates to campaign outside the states with the biggest cities, increases the political influence of small and sparsely-populated states and strengthens the two-party system, and generally binds the country together.  Present-day critics, of whom there are many, assert that it sabotages the principle of majority rule by modifying the principle of one-person-one-vote.  “It is rotting American democracy from the inside out,” Editorial Board member and author Jesse Wegman wrote in The New York Times the other day.

But a look at the poll projection summarized on the website 270towin shows just how dramatically fortunes can change based on voters’ assessment of a president’s performance in office. We won’t know how the election turns out until November. But it is significant that expectations are already leading candidate Joe Biden to extend his campaign (at least campaign expenditures in this virus-plagued year – to traditional “fly-over” states for Democratic candidates.

Disastrous as may have been the results of the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s victory must be counted as something of a success for democracy in America. In casting their votes for a reality-television star of deplorable moral character, an enormous proportion of Americans, if not a majority of voters, delivered a somber vote of no-confidence in their government in Washington – a message that would have been ignored with a popular vote determining the outcome.

Whether the sentiments of the disenchanted will wax or wane over the next few presidential cycles remains to be seen. But elections happen every four years. Disabling or eliminating the Electoral College altogether in favor of presidential election via the popular vote is a bad idea. It would disconnect the feedback system, with its shifting “battleground states,” that may equilibrate levels of trust among voters across a large and diverse nation and its national government. The Framers knew what they were doing.

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Expect two more “What Happened in 2016?” weeklies between now and the election:  II, Russia; and III, the FBI.