Op-ed: In its latest test, the Electoral College failed

By Dick McCormack

I have received many communications from folks indignant that the presidential candidate who got the most votes was not elected president by the Electoral College. These folks recognize that a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College is unlikely, and so focus their concerns on defending Vermont’s existing National Popular Vote law. I’m not aware of any effort to repeal this law, but I’ll oppose any such effort should that develop.

Each state that adopts National Popular Vote commits itself legally to direct its presidential electors to vote according to the national popular vote, to vote for the candidate who wins the most votes nationally. The commitment goes into effect only if and when enough states pass National Popular Vote to make a majority in the Electoral College.

Opponents of this law see it as an end-run around the Constitution. I disagree. The whole idea of the Electoral College is to empower the states. The states already have authority to determine how their electors are to be chosen and how they are to vote. Some states divide their electoral votes proportionally while most have a winner-takes-all policy. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the states from directing its electors to support the national popular vote. I think the question really is whether we choose to continue the intentionally undemocratic presidential election process originally developed by the Founders.

In fairness to the Founders, things were different in 1787. Although they wanted the benefits of “a more perfect union,” they were leery of that union’s threat to state authority. James Madison’s country was Virginia, not the United States. John Adams’ country was Massachusetts. They thought state governments were closer to home, more controllable, and so less of a threat to liberty.

Small states feared that the larger populations of big states would dominate the national popular vote and so dominate the small states. Electors in the Electoral College are allocated to favor small states. (Not that that served small Vermont very well in 2016.)

In 1787, democracy itself was still a controversial idea. The Electoral College is one of several intentionally anti-democratic constitutional provisions intended to protect against mob rule and the ascendancy of a demagogue. But …

Two hundred thirty years later, the Electoral College is an anachronism. We are less fearful of democracy. In fact, we are offended that the Electoral College thwarts and frustrates the Will of the People. The states remain the basic polity, but since the Civil War we define ourselves as one nation indivisible. The president is the national leader. The presidential election is a national election.

Worse, the Electoral College is a failure. Rather than protect us from mob rule and the “danger of democracy,” it is the Electoral College itself that has given us a demagogue. We the American People as a whole voted more wisely than we the people counted state by state, and more wisely than the electors, who were supposed to protect us from ourselves.

It’s no betrayal of the Founders to change their work. They wrote the Constitution as amendable, understanding that things would change. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The world belongs to the living.”

State Sen. Dick McCormack can be reached at rmccormack@leg.state.vt

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