The Electoral College is a Safeguard Against Tyranny

The latest litmus test of the Democratic presidential candidates' liberal bona fides is whether or not they support they abolition of the Electoral College.

The push is part of a growing movement--sparked almost entirely by liberal bitterness over Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss--to replace the supposedly antiquated Electoral College system with a national popular vote. As part of this push, Colorado has become the 12th state to join the National Popular Vote interstate compact, in which participant states will agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the popular vote within their states.

 

This agreement will only take effect if states with 270 electoral votes (the number needed to win the presidency) join the compact, thereby sidestepping both Article II of and the 12th Amendment to the Constitution and awarding the requisite number of electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote.

This plan is not especially likely to take effect since it has only attracted a total of 181 electoral votes with only far-left states representing an additional 20 or so electoral votes likely to join, but it has nonetheless excited a Democratic Party desperate to change rules under which it doesn't think it can win.

More to the point, as MoveOn.org contributor and left-wing activist Karine Jean-Pierre admitted, Democrats are now hyper-focused on abolishing the Electoral College because of a pair of elections they didn't win.

“You know, I think that conversation has been around since 2000 [when Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote but lost the presidency]," Jean-Pierre told MSNBC's Craig Melvin. "And I think, yes, you’re right, Craig, I think after 2016, there was a big — a much bigger push for it. So, yeah, you know, Hillary Clinton, her loss winning 3 million more votes for the popular vote clearly and losing the Electoral College absolutely put this issue in the forefront."

Naturally, the Framers of the Constitution were a tad bit more farsighted than political partisans bitter about election losses; so farsighted in fact that they created the Electoral College for precisely the reason that Democrats are trying to abolish it.

This may come as a surprise to modern Americans, but the nation's Founders abhorred the idea of a democracy. They feared tyranny in all of its forms, even the "tyranny of the majority." As such, they believed that the direct election federal government officials by popular vote was ripe for abuse.

For this reason, Article I of the Constitution provided that state legislatures, not the people themselves, would elect United States Senators. Under what became known as the "Connecticut Compromise," the Framers set up their bicameral legislature in a manner that ensured that the states with the largest populations could not dominate smaller states through sheer numbers of representatives: Each state would have two Senators while its representation in the House of Representatives would be determined by population.

House members would be directly elected by the people and have to be accountable to them through elections every two years, but to ensure that the Senate was not similarly swayed by the the ever-changing winds of political populism Senators would be chosen by each state's legislature. Since Senators serve the longest terms of any elected representative in the federal government, the thinking was that they should be more deliberative on the legislation coming out of the House and less likely to make decisions aimed at pleasing what Alexis de Tocqueville later dubbed the "tyranny of the majority" of their state's voters.

So ingrained was this notion that Senators were not directly elected by statewide popular vote until after the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

In crafting their new republic, the Founders were heavily influenced by Ancient Greek democracy...and viewed it as an example of what not to do.

That system, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1816, was "so different . . . from what it is now and with us, that I think little edification can be obtained from their writings on the subject of government. They had just ideas of the value of personal liberty, but none at all of the structure of government best calculated to preserve it."

James Madison, the primary author of the U.S. Consitution, agreed in The Federalist Papers.

"[D]emocracies have [always] been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” he wrote, “have [always] been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

"[In a pure democracy], [a] common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

John Adams concurred.

"[D]emocracy never lasts long," he said. "It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

He was right. The democracy of Athens, considered the greatest in world history, lasted just 170 years...and most of them were consumed in wars with other Greek city-states. America's Founders were determined not to make the same mistakes.

Dr. Benjamin Rush voiced this notion rather succinctly, saying that "a simple democracy...is one of the greatest of evils."

The evil that they were most concerned about was majority-rule democracy's propensity for abuse. A smooth-talking populist tyrant could easily manipulate 50.1% of any population or, worse yet, 10% of any population. Simple democracies are inherently flawed in that they don't result in majority rule when there are more than two candidates running for a given office. In a pure democracy, dozens of candidates on a ballot could sufficiently split a vote so that a candidate with only a tiny fraction of the public's support could rise to power.

And the Founders were deeply suspicious of government power, especially when it was vested in one person. This, they unanimously agreed, invariably led to the exact tyranny against which they had rebelled.

The new office of American President, then, could not and would not be elected by popular vote since it was so vulnerable. Under the original Virginia Plan, delegates to the Constitutional Convention determined that the Congress should select the President. Ultimately, though, it was decided that this would present an inherent problem since it would give one branch of government power over the other and the Founders wanted three separate but equal branches so as to provide checks and balances on the power of one another.

Moreover, growing discontent among delegates from the smaller colonies led to significant concern that they would not ratify the Constitution. Those colonies, primarily southern ones, were concerned that the federal government would essentially be nothing more than an arm of the north since it had a much larger population. This concern led directly to the Connecticut Compromise, in which states with higher populations would have greater representation in the House but the same representation in the Senate as states with lower populations.

This also presented a related problem: The eight colonies in which slavery was permitted had populations that were inflated by the number of slaves and thus had a voting advantage over the five free colonies. The Three-Fifths Compromise was struck to level the playing field and help ensure that no state had substantially more influence on the federal government than any other.

To blunt this influence in electing a president, the Founders again struck a compromise. There would be a mixture between the direct elections of the House and the state legislative selection of the Senate: A system of representatives that later became known as the Electoral College. The people of each state would vote for temporary electors, who would then meet to elect the President by majority vote. This, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68, was the only way to safeguard against corruption.

"It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder," he noted. "This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.

"The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place."

Madison agreed, writing in Federalist No. 10 that "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority" could form into what he called a "faction," defined as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

In other words, if the President were to be directly elected--as in a democracy--a faction could dominate government and impose its will on the people. The only remedy was a republican form of electing government's representatives such as what later became known as the Electoral College.

"The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States," he wrote. "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source."

Years later, Madison argued in a letter to George Hay that the Electoral College should be amended so that electors are chosen by Congressional district rather than by state so as to further prevent a potentially tyranny of the majority of state voters.

The Founders' initial system ran into trouble almost immediately, however, as electors chose Federalist Party candidate John Adams as President but Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson (the second-place finisher) as Vice President. As one might imagine, they did not see eye to eye on much, so much so that they ran against each other in the bitter election of 1800, which because of failed Democratic-Republican maneuvering, went to the House of Representatives, which chose Jefferson as President and Aaron Burr as Vice President.

As a result of this chaos, in 1804 the 12th Amendment was ratified, thus setting up the system of electing a President and Vice President used to this day. Today, though, the Electoral College is blasted as an antiquated system unfit for modern-day elections, but the truth is that the Founders were prescient enough to set up the Electoral College so as to limit the power of those now seeking to destroy it.

They are quite literally the "faction" that Madison warned about; "united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

It is an impulse driven by admitted bitterness over the results of one election and a stated desire to use what Jefferson called the "heats and ferments" of this bitterness to plunge the nation into an untenable, easily manipulated democracy ripe for the rise of tyranny.

The Founders saw all of this coming, and established a republic to stop it.

Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media often overlooks. Read more

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