Thursday, August 23, 2007

Electing a President

Part of the reason there is any controversy at all over the Electoral College is the misconception that the People elect the President. We don't. The States elect the President, and that's the way it should be.

Our government is a federation of States. In creating the new nation, the Founders balanced the needs of the States who were voting to create the Union and the Union itself, and balanced both State and Union against the needs of the People. Understand from that this one thing: the People are not the Union. The People are not the States. The three entities are separated intentionally to create a balance of power. One of the most important roles, choosing the Chief Executive, is given not to the People (who elect the Congress) but to the States.

Without the triangle of People, States, and Union, power would quickly gravitate to one of the other remaining entities. We see that even now. Either the People would run wild and begin a period of insane majority whim, or the Union would begin a tyranny of the few.

To accomplish this balance a compromise was reached between the large States and the small ones, whereby each State got a minimum amount of power augmented in proportion to its population. The mechanism for appointing our officials was the amalgam of a variety of sources, including ancient Greek democracy, the Roman Republic, and not least, the Holy Roman Empire, a waning power in Europe at the time.

The short-lived democracy of ancient Athens was mildly successful despite its rapid descent into populism and aristocratic manipulation. It derives its influence more from its output of learning than its actual influence on its neighbors in geography and time.

The Roman Republic lasted a long time, roughly five centuries, before the Senate, who in the end could only cast votes and make talk (to oversimplify), capitulated to Caesar, who had the loyalty of the men with swords. Still, the legislature served as a source for capitol intrigue in the Empire, if nothing else. But the idea of an essentially aristocratic Senate was unappealing to the Founders.

The Holy Roman Emperor was elected from one of the correct bloodlines (technically, any nobleman over 18 with property in the Empire). The election was made by a group of Electors, each of which was Duke of this or Bishop of that. The Electors horsetraded Imperial votes for sweeter land deals, treaties, titles, money, promises, or other items of perceived value. The newly elected Emperor swore an oath not to make his throne hereditary. Technically, he wasn't Emperor until the Pope crowned him.

Not withstanding the standard cynical barb that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, at various times and degrees those attributes did apply. The Empire lasted a thousand years, from its founding by Charlemagne in 800 to its final, bleak end in 1806, and its history formed the basis of the modern history the men developing our Constitution would have been taught. Our founders would have been intimately familiar with the machinations that got someone to be elected Emperor, both in their seamy details and their higher purposes.

The Federal Register has an Electoral College FAQ, saying:

The founders appropriated the concept of electors from the Holy Roman Empire (962 - 1806). An elector was one of a number of princes of the various German states within the Holy Roman Empire who had a right to participate in the election of the German king (who generally was crowned as emperor).

The reason we have an Electoral College is to give smaller States a voice. Remember that it's the States, not the People, who elect the President. In fact, there is no requirement that a State even have an election to determine how its Electors will vote. A State could have its Legislature vote on Electors, or could allow the Governor to decide, or even let him or someone else roll dice.

States which split their Electoral votes on Congressional district are essentially abdicating their Constitutional role. If such a State is closely contested, their electoral votes essentially don't count at all, and an individual citizen's vote as a citizen of that State matters even less. In a winner-take-all electoral system, the citizen's vote has a larger relative impact. Rather than being one vote out of 50,000,000, he is one out of perhaps a million who selects a given candidate.

Even thought the trend has been to consolidate power away from the States, they still have the power to reform the Constitution or call a Constitutional Convention if two-thirds (currently 34) of the State Legislatures approve it. A Constitutional Convention might not never happen, because it would have essentially unlimited ability to change the Constitution, or to abolish it completely.

But in the end, as far as the Presidency goes, it doesn't matter one bit how an individual votes. What matters is how the people of his State select their Electors. If that hurts your feelings and makes you feel all powerless, I have two suggestions. The first is to look around and notice that you live in the same State with your friends and neighbors, your employer if you have one, your grocer, and probably most of their customers. Even if you don't believe they deserve loyalty, you can probably see that you have similar interests. You all can decide together who you want for President, and my friends and neighbors will help me decide who I want. If you get sick of their choices, move to a different State.

The second suggestion will have to wait for an upcoming post.

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