When our side wins, democracy happens. When our opponents win, democracy fails.
The rule cited above does not explain every possible reaction to electoral outcomes, but it explains so many that we can never ignore it. Even though criticism of the Electoral College has never been a Democratic Party monopoly; current agitation for Electoral College abolition emanates from frustrated Democrats. Their abolitionist enthusiasm is clearly inspired by Hillary Clinton’s failure to snatch the presidency from the talons of the Trump Tower Gargoyle.
Richard Lempert, a Senior Fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution and a faithful Democrat, takes issue with the great majority of his sectarian comrades. The Fellow’s Nov. 29 column finds redeeming features.
First, he points out that it was owing to the Electoral College that the “hairs breadth” difference between Bush and Gore in 2000 did not lead to a national recount, leaving the nation in the dark for months. Thinking as a true wonk, he wonders where we could find the trained lawyers, poll watchers, and other workers necessary to do the recount job on a nationwide scale. He guesses the Florida recount alone took most of the qualified personnel.
Second, he reminds us “the other great service that the Electoral College provides is to remove incentives to rig elections.” He reasons that hard partisan election officials in states where a single party dominates and the minority party has no chance to grab the state’s Electoral College votes, would have a motive to jack up their party’s popular vote totals by stuffing ballot boxes and illegally misreporting or suppressing votes.
While acknowledging that this year’s split between the Electoral College and the popular majorities leaves many Democrats questioning the legitimacy of a Trump presidency, Lempert guesses these questions would grow still more vehement without his collegian count.
He easily concedes that, “if democracy means the majority rules, the Electoral College is an undemocratic institution,” but points out that there are undemocratic institutions built into our system of checks and balances. The Founders immunized America’s judicial system against majority rule by design. Supermajorities are required to override a presidential veto. Even more restrictive supermajorities are required to formally amend the Constitution.
Lempert appears to approve the axiom proposed by Lord Falkland (ca. 1610 –1643), and approvingly quoted by JFK at his inauguration, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
Speaking for most Democrats, Michael Dukakis believes abolition of the Electoral College is emphatically necessary. He announced on Nov. 13 that Americans should have abolished it 150 years ago. Indeed, he demands that the “…anachronistic Electoral should be at the top of the Democratic priority list.”
All the news sites which exist to serve the liberal cause—-The Huffington Post, The New York Times and Slate.com, Salon.com, Dailykos.com, among other news —-appear to favor the Dukakis view.
The race angle, usually an integral part of every liberal project, does not appear in these early reactions. The Bangor Daily News (BDN) found a column by Christopher Petrella, a Bates College lecturer, to fill the gap. In his column, the Bates boy starts by separating himself from disgruntled Democrats. I quote: “To be clear, this critique of the racialized origin of the Electoral College should not be interpreted as the cheap product of disappointment over the election results…”
OK, good to know. The lad digs deeper than current events. His objective is to open up “a critical space for examining the racialized origin of the Electoral College.” When you accept Petrella’s insight that “U.S. democracy is a racial project” pure and simple you will see that the musty, old Electoral College isn’t color-blind. It was never color-blind. Nothing in America is ever color-blind. Denying this is a confession of racism.
The BDN columnist tells us that the Electoral College, designed by the slave-holding Virginian James Madison, explains why four of our first five presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe – were white, slaveholding men from Virginia.” If we accept that Madison’s racially motivated Electoral College design ensured the domination of Virginia’s slave-owning sons, then we must disregard John Adams’s Massachusetts origins and hostility to slavery. We must also ignore the plain fact that Washington did not rely on Electoral College votes for his first election victory or Monroe for his second. They were virtually the unanimous choice in both cases.
Once we have discounted these exceptions to Petrella’s argument, there’s no reason to doubt his racialist explanation for the “Virginia Dynasty,” as long as we also disregard Jefferson’s 1800 victory with 61.4% of the popular vote and his 1804 victory with 72.8%. James Monroe got 68.2% of the popular vote in 1816 along with his 183 Electoral College votes, so we must disregard that as well.
This leaves Madison as the sole undeniable beneficiary of his own racialist Electoral College scheme. Well, not totally undeniable. He won his first term with 64.7% of the popular vote. That leaves us with the least undeniable example of a pay-off from the scheme. He won his 1812 victory with 128 EC votes and just 50.4% of the popular votes. How conclusive is that?
It was this same James Madison, by the way, who drafted the “Virginia Plan,” proposing a bicameral legislature with both houses chosen by the separate states in proportion to their population of free citizens. This would have given Virginia an advantage since it was then the most populous state. This plan would have given no advantage to slave states. All the “big states” would have benefited.
No matter which wonk you turn to, the Electoral College will always be unfair – because when their side loses, democracy fails.