In the Constitution the method for electing the President bears only a limited resemblance to the system which we use today. The basic description of the process is in Article 2, Section 1, which says:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The specifics are further clarified in the 12th Amendment, but this basic procedure of selecting electors who then select the president remains in power. The key element of it is that the state legislatures determine how the electors are to be chosen.
In the early years of the republic, in many cases the state legislatures basically just picked the electors who would then pick the President. There was little involvement of the public and this was perfectly legal under the Constitution. Then negative reaction to the contentious outcome of the election of 1824 prompted activists from the newly formed Democratic party to campaign to pass state laws which established a direct link between a vote of the public and selection of electors by the state legislature. There are still variations from state to state. Some states assign electors on a winner-take-all basis and some apportion them based on how the popular vote falls between the candidates. Most of them require the state legislature to certify the vote and select the electors based on it, but in some cases this requirement is not binding and the legislature can override the voters.
These state laws connecting the presidential election to a popular vote were an interesting experiment in popular democracy, but now, 180 years later, it has become unavoidably clear that the experiment has failed. It is time to repeal those state laws and return to a system where the selection of the President is carried out in a more rational and less contentious way.
Most other successful systems of representative government wisely avoid the mistake of directly involving the general public in the process of selecting the chief executive. For example, the parliamentary system in England, which has a history of 800 years of successful representative government, allows citizens to vote for their parliamentary representatives, but then has those representatives select the Prime Minister without consulting the voters. This system picks the nation’s leader through a process of coalition building, compromise and consensus which requires that elected politicians work together to pick a leader they can all live with. It is a process which unites people and builds confidence in the Prime Minister.
It was this sort of process which the founding fathers sought to emulate in their institution of the electoral college and leaving the selection of the electors up to the state legislatures. They liked the idea of selecting a President by consensus and without direct democracy, but they wanted to separate the process from the national legislature to avoid conflict of interest.
The people who really represent you are the legislators you elect to your state governments and to the House and Senate. They are selected from a small enough voting pool that your vote means something to them. With over a hundred million people voting, your individual vote has virtually no meaning in the presidential election, and pretending that the president is answerable to you because of that one vote is pure delusion.
The problem with letting the general public vote for the President is that it inflates the importance of the presidency and helps solidify the power of national political parties. Without the presidential election as a uniting force, we would likely have more regional and special interest political parties and the entire political process would be less divisive, more varied and more open. The amount of money spent on the presidential election and the amount of media attention focused on it has become ridiculous. The current campaign has lasted for two years, and it’s really nothing but an interminable beauty contest, a process which caters to meaningless demagoguery and works very poorly as a method of assessing a candidates real abilities or qualifications.
The founding fathers were very concerned about how easily the public could be swayed by a charismatic but ultimately destructive leader. This is why they wrote institutions like the Electoral College into the Constitution to try to place barriers between the voters and the process of selecting the President. They really didn’t like direct democracy at all. They thought of it as the equivalent of mob rule. Looking at the frenzied crowds and hateful rhetoric of the current election, it’s easy to see why they were concerned. The vast majority of voters are underinformed and easily swayed by empty promises and smear campaigns.
Imagine what this election would be like if it was run as the founding fathers intended. We could actually focus on local candidates who we know something about, electing citizen legislators who we might actually get a chance to meet and talk to, who know us and our needs and might even take our call when we phone their office. We’d get to vote for people who actually feel some sense of responsibility to us as individuals.
Our state legislatures would then pick electors who are citizens who hold no public office and they would pick the president in a relatively quiet and non-partisan process. The interests of the states and their citizens would be the dominant consideration in picking the President and the role of political parties and special interests would be minimized. It would be a humbling process of placing a great responsibility on an individual, instead of a glorifying expression of the cult of personality which is what our current process amounts to.
This election has clearly shown that the system we use for choosing a president is fatally flawed. I fear that the republic won’t survive many more contests with this level of divisivenenss and partisanship. These over-the-top elections are tearing us apart and they aren’t producing particularly good leaders. It’s time to abandon the chaotic populist experiment of the Jacksonian era and go back to the wisdom of the founding fathers and end the nationwide popular vote for the presidency.