In light of the recent US election and the ensuing debate over the role of the Electoral College (that seems to occur at least once every 10-20 years), I thought it might be relevant and topical to share my family’s views on the American Constitution to put some recent concerns into context.  Not to sound uppity, snooty, or “hoity-toity” (because, who among us is able to control who one’s ancestors were?), my maternal relatives are able to trace back the family’s US lineages to before the American Revolution.  And, one of our ancestors humbly contributed to the US Constitutional Convention. 

I am a descended from the guy who came up with the idea for the Bill of Rights for the Virginia State Constitution (i.e., George Mason, who was also George Washington’s neighbor, friend, and fellow church-member).  Mason subsequently shared the idea of a nationalized Bill of Rights with James Madison (who was puzzled as to how a federal government could guarantee specific liberties to individual citizens) at the time when Madison was writing the Constitution. 

Cementing the accurate passage of these familial, historical insights on the intent behind the Constitution, every other generation of my mother’s family had at least one serving judge (i.e., usually in the position of local magistrate, a lower court position filled by election by the people of their district).  These family members were well versed in Constitutional law as well as American (especially pre-Revolutionary War) history.  Usually, whomever in the family served in this capacity would take great pride in explaining to all of the relatives (actually, anybody at all who would listen to them!) these myriad of insights so that we had accurate perceptions why the Constitution was set-up as it was.  If anybody wants to read for themselves to corroborate what we learned from such family discussions, I recommend taking a look at The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, Articles #67 and #68, at the links below:

I have heard a lot of people trying to explain why the Electoral College exists, and most miss some of the important rationale justifying this entity.   One of the more common arguments used to defend an Electoral College is that this body of electors has historically had the effect of equalizing the input of big states versus small states, and heavily populated centers versus sparsely populated areas.  While this is true, there were so many other contributing factors to establishing the Electoral College.

Recently, there was an article which I very much enjoyed reading by a political scientist, Rabbi Avi Berkowitz, in "The Jerusalem Post" dated December 11, 2016 entitled, “Comment: We too need an electoral college”.  His argument for the need of an Electoral College (both in Israel and the US) was based on the concept of representatives finalizing the presidential choice within established geographical areas (as defined by states in the US).  In the US, this has eliminated the influence which tribalist sub-groups and/or small special-interest-groups within the populace might have on the final presidential outcome.  I especially liked the good Rabbi’s example of when he was chosen one year to bless the New York State Electoral Assembly and that all the ethnic, religious, and societal boundaries between people were essentially broken down and blurred together; everybody in attendance were just Americans from the State of New York and nothing else!  For me (as someone who is hard to put into any ethnic, religious, and/or societal constructed definitions), I appreciated that traditional divisions were gone and that even the hard-to-categorize people had the potential to have an important role in US society.

To be blunt, the people of the 13 original colonies had lived under royalty with absolute sovereignty over all subjects, whether in Europe or abroad in held-commonwealths like the colonies.  They were scared to death that the head of the Executive Branch of the new American government would turn out to have the same types of tyrannical characteristics that they had experienced from absolute rulers of that time period.  They also worried about foreign governments conspiring to set up someone to hold the office of president, who was not looking out for the interests of the US but for foreign interests.  Believing that all people were created equally in the eyes of G_d (at least the Caucasians over 21, unless they were women, prisoners, slaves, or indentured servants), the founding fathers didn’t believe that the “Divine Right of Kings” and “Royal Succession” existed based solely on blood lineage.  In fact, they observed that the high intelligence and magnanimous, outstanding character traits which in the past made someone a great leader degraded over generations in their descendants as heredity-based monarchs interbred with others not in possession of the same strong, virtuous traits. 

The founding fathers realized no method of deciding who would hold the highest office in the land was perfect.  In fact, since all proposed methods were imperfect, there were many lengthy, lively and spirited discussions on how best to avoid any problems.  The main priorities were to design a “well guarded” system taking into account the will of the electorate, but not solely relying on the outcome of the popular vote to make such an important decision as who would be president.  They were a little concerned about the elections becoming giant popularity contests, and they didn’t want to see a swarmy, insincere, greedy, law-breaking, phony person ending up as president.

Also, the founding fathers were seeking a means where the least chance of placing an undesirable type of leader in the Presidency would occur – Hamilton expressed the desire that the Office of the US Presidency would be “filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue”.  Areas of paramount concerns included avoiding candidates having:

- popularity but with little genuine substance/character behind their public personas (i.e., phonies)

- tendencies for corruption,

- habits of lawlessness,

- potential for absolute despotism,

- political persuasions detrimental to the emerging State,

- treasonous associations with royal families or foreign governments,

- potential anarchist/nihilistic traits leading to societal chaos,  

- tendency for ingratiating themselves with powerful supporters solely to extend their terms in office, etc.

The most sought-after presidential candidates were those who kept the best interests of the majority of citizens foremost while considering the needs of the minority to formulate fair and balanced public policies.  Hopefully such leaders would not be limited to focusing only on the issues impacting any specific sub-group of the population, political party, or state/region of the country.

While the idea of “one-vote for one-person” conveys the concept of a democratic government, the US founding fathers knew that “majority rule” or “mob rule” had the potential to become problematic and disruptive.  So, they essentially designed the country to be a republic where decisions are made by representatives of the people (and where every citizen has a right to vote to determine their representatives thus preserving the values of the majority).  If the USA were truly a democracy, then every individual citizen would be burdened deciding on every piece of legislation which are currently presented at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels (which nowadays, it is probably a lot more than a full-time job to fully consider every bill affecting each individual citizen). 

So that people are free to pursue their dreams and personal enterprises to the maximum extent without societal degradation to chaos and confusion, democratic-style elections are held to choose proxies to write and execute the laws.  Therefore, the USA is truly a democratic-republic and not just a democracy.  (I hope that this statement doesn’t cause any die-hard partisan Democrats or Republicans to do something drastic, like swallow their gum and choke…  Heaven forbid!)  But the founding fathers were looking for more than just an ordinary proxy or representative for any group of American citizens – they were in hopes that the people making the legislative decisions for others were well-informed of current events and governmental concepts, plus they had the capacity to be fair to properly represent the maximum number of constituents. 

This same “democratic choice of well-informed representatives for a successful republic” concept is at the foundations for the Electoral College.  It was hoped that electors be fully informed on the spectrum of political positions in America and that they were well-educated in the concepts of governmental theories where they could make the best decisions to preserve this newly-emerging State.  Overall, electors were hoped to have the character and conscientious natures to be unbiased and fair in making their final selection for president.  In an age where information surrounding current events was not equally well-distributed (especially on the frontier and countrysides, in contrast with the towns and cities) and people’s qualities and levels of education varied more than we see nowadays (even though a lot of home schooling and old one-room school houses in colonial times provided a better quality of education than many modern US public schools provide), the founding fathers wanted to ensure that the most unprejudiced, qualified, informed, fair-minded people in each state were the ones making the final deliberation on who became president. 

The founding fathers also would not leave the decision for each state in the hands of one individual citizen.  But they insisted that several electors representing each state submit their recommendations to the federal Electoral College (and specified that each state should have the same number of electors as their total number of both US Senators and US Representatives combined).  They felt that the public would better accept the deliberations of several well-qualified representatives as opposed to one person declaring who the state supported as incoming president.  One person making this “proclamation” could be seen as a small king or tyrant imposing his/her will on the state. 

Also, the founding fathers did not want the electors to hold any other place in government other than citizen-at-large (i.e., no officials holding public office like Senators, or anyone essentially making a profit in the support of the nation). Fear of electors being too close and chummy (causing undue influence on the incoming/returning president), or too “great[ly] devoted to” the incoming/returning president (indicating a biased elector who should be recused from this duty) caused great concern.  The founding fathers thought the president should be above such relationships to serve only the will of the people.

This body of electors who were specifically chosen by the people of each state were initially seen as a transitory assembly, serving only for the purpose of making the final decision on who should be president.  People participating as electors would vary from election to election, and no “pre-established body” was to be organized for a long period of time before elections (to avoid undue vote tampering).  The founding fathers favored the idea of electors being spread out and disseminated throughout the 13 colonies because they felt that there was less of a chance of malevolent individuals/parties adversely influencing them and/or buying their votes.    

It was originally thought that each state’s assembly of electors meet only in their own states and not to gather in a large national convention (like the original Constitutional Convention, or like partisan party national conventions like those held nowadays) to reduce the potential for vote-tampering and personal harm to the electors. In colonial times, for an unpatriotic group to create a conspiracy of the magnitude of influencing all state electors across all 13 states, the founding fathers felt it would require a great deal of organization, effort at persuasion, and time for political arm-twisting and deal-making.  Therefore,our founding fathers felt that the short window of time between the popular election and the nationwide casting of state ballots to the Electoral College was significantly short enough where tampering would be less likely. 

However, with modern travel and instantaneous communication modalities, Americans may now want to consider an even shorter time window than between the general election and the deadline for ballot submission to the Electoral College (now, at roughly 6 weeks).  This is the only thing I would change about the Electoral College at this juncture in the life of the nation.  Although, this time window has to be sufficiently long enough time to allow anyone to petition individual states for ballot recounts (if absolutely necessary) before reaching the states’ specified deadlines for filing petitions.  Plus, allowing enough time for any accurate recounts must be taken into consideration.

Although there is a lot of public discussion about “doing away with the Electoral College because it is an archaic institution”, I think Americans need to stop and think about what the current system offers to protect our society, our government, and our rights as individual citizens.  To me, it isn’t as “cut and dried” as a lot of people appear to think – in fact, the Electoral College has been uniquely and originally designed to be relevant throughout the course of American history.  Let’s face it – a lot of US elections boil down to popularity contests, politicians can be more corrupt than they were at the founding of the US, candidates have been coached to project an electable persona and say the right things to appeal to the most voters, conspiracies (foreign or domestic) seem to have increased and have become more complex over time, while the character has woefully decayed of so many of the American people (in addition to so many American political candidates).

Is the Electoral College truly archaic, or are many Americans now so far removed from the foundational principles of the country that we are “too progressive” for such a thoughtfully designed concept?  

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