POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

The Worst of Many Bad Ideas

by David Trumbull - August 6, 2010

Senator Richard Tisei, the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor called it one of the worst of the many bad ideas that come out of the Massachusetts State House. He was speaking of a bill passed by the Massachusetts House and Senate to require all twelve of Massachusetts’ Presidential Electors to vote for the presidential candidate who got the highest tally, across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In other words, Massachusetts could easily end up casting its 12 votes for someone other than the candidate who carried this state!

For example, had this law been in effect in 2004 when George W. Bush won the popular vote, all 12 Bay State electors would have had to vote for Mr. Bush, even though Massachusetts Senator John Kerry got over 60% of the vote here!

Does that make any sense to anyone who does not work in the Massachusetts State House? So why would the Democrats on Beacon Hill want to force the electors from liberal Massachusetts to vote for the overall favorite in a nation that is, for the most part, more conservative and more Republican that the Bay State? The answer is the Electoral College. Ever since the 2000 presidential election in which George W. Bush won the majority of the electoral vote—the only vote that matters, but Al Gore won the popular vote, liberals and Democrats have been in a snit about Article 2 Section 1 of the United States Constitution—election of the President.

According to Alexander Hamilton, who worked hard to get our Constitution adopted by the states, almost every provision in the proposed pact had some detractor who had to be answered. He, and his fellow Federalists did a fine job of answering those objections in the Federalist Papers. Interestingly, he stated that the selection of the President by the Electoral College was “almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.” In Federalist No. 68 Hamilton lays out as a rationale for the Electoral College that

“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided…committing the right of making it…to men chosen by the people for the special purpose…

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. “

Indirect election was not limited to the presidency. U.S. Senators, until the rules were changed in 1913 by the 17th Amendment, were elected by state legislatures. The astute observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville considered indirect election senators to be one of America’s greatest contributions to democracy and the popular franchise, writing in Book I, Part 2, Chapter 5 of Democracy in America:
“…this transmission of the popular authority through an assembly of chosen men operates an important change in it, by refining its discretion and improving the forms which it adopts. Men who are chosen in this manner accurately represent the majority of the nation which governs them; but they represent the elevated thoughts which are current in the community, the propensities which prompt its nobler actions, rather than the petty passions which disturb or the vices which disgrace it.”
Tocqueville was so persuaded that indirect election of senators could save the American democracy from degenerating into despotism, as had historic democracies, that he confidently predicted that Americans would surely expand the principle to other offices. Sadly he was wrong, we now have direct election of senators, with the result that that chamber is dominated by billionaires and celebrities.

According to Frank Addivinola, Republican candidate for Senate in the First Suffolk and Middlesex District, our legislators, also rejected a proposal to put this change on the state ballot for the people to decide whether we want to have our Massachusetts electors vote, not according to the will of the voters of Massachusetts, but according to the will of voters in other locations.

Who can predict what woes direct popular election of the President will bring? We can be sure that, just as the bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature would have our electors ignore the will of our voters, direct election of the President will result in further eroding of the power of your individual vote on Election Day.

[David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee. Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.]