A new year calls for new thinking. Let's begin by rethinking how we elect the president of the United States. Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently remarked that the current Electoral College system is an anachronism and should be replaced. She's right.
Those who opposed direct election said, "The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men."
Others thought the large size of the country "renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates."
... The real sticking point against direct election came from Southern states who feared being at a disadvantage since part of their population, slaves, was forbidden from voting.
The Electoral College was an anachronism from the beginning. It was a jerry-built contraption adopted because delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention couldn't agree on a method to elect the president. And it was the first piece of constitutional machinery to break down. The first change was the 12th Amendment in 1804, which was a result of the disastrous 1800 election.
The Electoral College has been changed many times: of 15 constitutional amendments after 1800, five have directly changed the original Electoral College system. Four more have indirectly changed it by broadening the right to vote in presidential elections.
After more than 200 years, it's time to craft a better system.
To do that, it is instructive to read the original debates from the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The arguments in favor of direct election by the people hold up even better today than they did then.
James Wilson and Gouveneur Morris of Pennsylvania championed election by the people. Wilson wanted the president to be independent of Congress and the states. Morris said the president should be "guardian of the people" and, thus, elected by the people.
Those who opposed direct election said, "The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men." Others thought the large size of the country "renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates."
Those arguments were nonsense then; they're ridiculous in an age of universal education and information transmitted at the speed of light.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut feared that direct election would allow large states to dominate the presidency. James Madison of Virginia, who supported direct election by the people, replied that "great as this objection might be," it paled in comparison to problems with other election methods. The real sticking point against direct election came from Southern states who feared being at a disadvantage since part of their population, slaves, was forbidden from voting.
Deadlocked between direct election and election by Congress, the convention referred the issue to the Committee on Detail, which revived Wilson's compromise proposal to have the president be "chosen by Electors to be chosen by the people of the several States." That last-minute compromise was how the Electoral College was born. It clearly is an artifact produced by deadlock. It is not a venerable institution to be saved at all cost.
It has been rife with problems throughout its history. In the 1824 election, for example, Andrew Jackson led in the Electoral College and popular vote, but didn't have a majority. So the election went to the House of Representatives, which elected runner-up John Quincy Adams.
Since then, three others have lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College vote: Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000. Twenty-two elections have been close enough that this could have occurred. In the last election, for example, if John Kerry had won Ohio, Bush would have won the national popular vote, but lost the Electoral College vote and the presidency, a perverse result.
Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, plan to propose a constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with direct election of the president. Others have suggested allotting Electoral College votes of each state by share of popular vote, rather than the present winner-take-all system. A candidate with 55 percent of a state's popular vote would win 55 percent of that state's electoral votes; a runner-up with 45 percent of the popular vote would win 45 percent of the electoral votes.
Either option is better than what we have.
Some fear that change would negatively affect small states. Yet these states already enjoy disproportionate power in the U.S. Senate; Wyoming gets two U.S. senators, same as California. Why should small states also get disproportionate power in electing the president? We shouldn't have a system where large states are ignored in presidential elections, as has happened to California in recent years.
This principle should guide the thinking in establishing a new system: The presidency is a national office and election of the president should reflect the directly expressed will of the American people.
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