Electoral Collegiality?: The Right Way

From time to time, INCITE and its research affiliates will share their thoughts on a range of topics. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions of each post are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of INCITE. The following piece was written by William McAllister, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellows Program at INCITE.

To meet its constitutional obligation as envisioned by the founders of the republic, a majority of the Electoral College must vote for someone other than Donald Trump to be president. The founders created the Electoral College in part because they feared national, direct election by the “people”—white men, 21 and over who owned property!—could result in an unqualified president. The wise men of the Electoral College would avoid choosing such a man.

Ah, irony. Trump is precisely the unqualified man the founders feared from direct election. In Federalist 68, Hamilton writes that the Electoral College ensures against a President with “talents for low intrigue” and the “little arts of popularity”—traits that define Trump; and that it guarantees a person with the “esteem and confidence of the whole Union,” “pre-eminen[ce] for ability and virtue,” “aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration”—Trump?, not so much. That Hamilton did not include disqualifiers like being a crook, a charlatan, an authoritarian, and mendacious may only indicate he couldn’t imagine someone with all these malevolent traits being taken seriously as a candidate.

Political conservatives and the right generally assert their sacred protectorate over the constitution as the founders understood it. Since Trump is clearly anathema to the founders and since the founders established a mechanism for preventing Trump from becoming President, the right must be urging the Electoral College to vote for someone other than Trump: Tea Partiers, carrying copies of the constitution close to their hearts; politicians and legal scholars, promoting “originalism” in constitutional interpretation; right-wingers, deifying the founders; and conservatives, claiming to revere the values and norms that, they say, the founders were embedding in government by eschewing direct election and erecting the Electoral College.

Don’t hurt yourself trying to find any of these kinds of people taking this position. Prominent advocacy organizations (Federalist Society, Judicial Watch), think tanks (Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation), publications (Weekly Standard, National Review), online and other media (Fox, Breitbart), like all on the right, have all failed to do so. We expect everyday political disingenuousness, among the commentariat as we do among politicians and ourselves, but the current situation is not everyday. This is arguably the most threatening electoral result to the political system and the national government since 1860. At such a moment, our everyday disingenuousness—ok, hypocrisiessimply won’t do. And liberal declarations that getting the Electoral College to not vote for Trump is a “moonshot,” while almost certainly correct, miss the point. This moonshot is exactly the vote the founders would expect from the Electoral College. So too should the political right and the Republican Party.

Twice in the last sixteen years the candidate chosen by the Electoral College has differed from that chosen by the nation as a whole. The first time indeed proved to be tragedy, for Iraqis, Afghanis, U.S. soldiers and their families, and for Americans blown up by the Great Recession; now the second occurs as farce. Liberals and the left have long opposed the Electoral College; and evidently the right does not believe it should function as their sacred founders intended. This suggests we should replace the Electoral College’s state-by-state, winner-take-all method with an alternative that better reflects the plurality winner of the vote of the nation as a whole. That is, we need a more democratic method. Our country should not fear such democracy, especially now that those voting include women, the descendants of enslaved people, those who do not own property.

To accomplish this, alternatives to an unlikely constitutional amendment have been proposed. The initiative furthest along at the state level—each state’s pledging its Electoral College vote in proportion to its popular vote—has been approved by ten states. But these are deeply blue states so that for this, or another proposal, to succeed will almost certainly require a powerful political impetus. This can and should come from those who have benefitted from the current system. We will soon have three former presidents from the Democratic Party, and we currently have two from the Republican Party. It is up to these former presidents to come together in declaring against the Electoral College, agreeing on an alternative, and using their political talents and fund-raising abilities to put a democratic remedy into law. Our former Presidents have rightly been concerned with ills and elections elsewhere in the world. Now they should focus on the U.S.