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Harris Sherline: We Should Not Abandon the Electoral College

A Sacramento Bee editorial noted, “The way that the United States elects a president is broken, and has been for some time — actually, since the very beginning.”

The Bee further observed, “The American people do not directly elect their president. They vote for a slate of ‘electors’ (who are selected by the political parties) to an Electoral College, which then elects the president ... it is long past time to elect the president the same way that we elect every other official from governor to senator to school board member — by direct popular vote.”

But, should the president of the United States be elected by popular vote?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Nov. 12, 2000) noted the following about this issue:

In 1787, as the U.S. Constitution was being drafted in Philadelphia, James Wilson of Pennsylvania proposed direct election of the president. But James Madison of Virginia worried that such a system would hurt the South, which would have been outnumbered by the northern population in a direct election system.

Thus the Electoral College was created. It was part of the deal the Southern states, in computing their share of electoral votes, could count slaves (under the Constitution, they were worth two-fifths of a vote). They, of course, were given none of the privileges of citizenship, and could not vote — the slave owner voted for them. Virginia emerged as the big winner with more than a quarter of the electors needed to elect a president. A free state like Pennsylvania got fewer electoral votes even though it had approximately the same free population.

However, the Constitution had a pro-Southern bias. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slave-holding Virginian occupied the presidency. Thomas Jefferson, for example, won the election of 1800 against John Adams from Massachusetts in a race in which the slavery skew of the Electoral College was the decisive margin of victory.

The system’s sex bias was also obvious. In a direct presidential election, any state that chose to enfranchise its women would have automatically doubled its clout. Under the Electoral College, however, a state had no special incentive to expand suffrage — each got a fixed number of electoral votes, regardless of how many citizens were allowed to vote.

After the civil war, the USA forgot about questioning the Electoral College system and continued its application in voting. The college favors a two-party system only and has no discretion for third or fourth political parties in an election.

So, it seems that slavery or remnants of its philosophy are still with us today in the U.S. elections.

I disagree. Not only is it not broken, but I submit that the election of our president is functioning exactly as the founders envisioned it.

For one thing, electing members of Congress by “direct popular vote” would result in a few so-called “blue states” dominating the elections.

“The most recent ‘red states-blue states’ map demonstrates a vast difference in people’s attitudes and thinking,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote.

“Generally, people residing in urban-dominated and coastal counties voted blue, while residents of the more rural, interior counties (the so-called ‘fly-over country’) voted red. Even within counties, it was primarily the population centers that colored a county’s majority-vote blue, even though the geographically larger, rural portions of the same county voted red. The persistent gap between ‘blue’ voters and ‘red’ voters, however, runs deeper than their perceptions of ... (who) is better at keeping us safe from terror or John Kerry is better able to create jobs. This attitudinal difference relates to a basic question that has been debated by man since his early ancestors first began to live and work together in groups — that is, the relationship between people and government.”

Blue state voters generally want more government, while those in the red states prefer less government, which they believe is already too big and too intrusive. These perceptions also tend to represent the liberal-conservative philosophy of government. That is, “liberals” generally support the idea of more government, while “conservatives” espouse less government.

Where do you fit on the liberal vs. conservative spectrum of political thought?

— Harris Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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