How to Fix the Electoral College System

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tags: election 2016, Electoral College



Matthew Cooper has worked for some of America's most prestigious magazines including Time, The New Republic, National Journal, U.S. News & World Report.

If you voted in the recent presidential election, there’s a pretty good chance you spent some time pondering the qualifications of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There’s almost no chance you were thinking about David Ferriero’s résumé, but you should have been. As the chief archivist of the United States, Ferriero and his colleagues organize the vote of the 538 electors in the Electoral College who actually choose the president.

The Constitution requires all electors to meet in their state capitols to cast ballots. Ferriero collects and organizes them, makes sure the states have followed the rules, then presents the ballots to Congress, which is charged with getting them counted. This antiquated ritual will play out again on January 6; only then will the U.S. officially elect its 45th president.

Outside of a fifth-grade social studies class, most people don’t study the Electoral College, but this year it’s controversial because Trump lost the popular vote (by well over a million votes, and it could be 2 million when the counting’s done). This has happened just five times in American history, but twice in the past 16 years, the other time being George W. Bush’s Electoral College defeat of Al Gore in 2000. But given demographics, it could happen again, and soon.

Trump supporters bristle when they hear griping about the Electoral College, and they probably should. No one is doubting their man won by the rules of the game, but a lot of people are now questioning why Americans play this silly game every four years. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California has introduced a bill to abolish the Electoral College, and anti–Electoral College op-ed writers have been ripping it for weeks now. Among their questions and laments: Why have a system that ensures most states are ignored during the presidential campaign while a few swing states are buried with attention from the candidates? Should a minority of voters get to decide who becomes president? And is there any way to fix this system short of a constitutional amendment?

The Founding Fathers, worried about mob rule, envisioned the Electoral College as a kind of cooler-heads-prevail backstop. Alexander Hamilton saw the electors as wise men “most likely to possess the information and discernment” to choose a good president, and he didn’t want the electors pledged to any candidate. But these days, the electors are almost always party hacks and former elected officials, merely a rubber stamp, not some independent body of wise souls solemnly weighing whether to ratify the people’s choice. (In a bit of eerie prescience, Hamilton in “Federalist 68” seemed to anticipate the controversy over Russian hacking by saying the electors might be able to overturn a popular vote that had been unduly influenced by a foreign power.)  ...




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