By Ted Wachtel
In the 45 U.S. presidential elections, five presidents have won with less than a popular majority.
More than ten percent of the time, the majority wanted someone else to be president. It happened most recently in 2000, and again in 2016.
The problem rests squarely with the Electoral College—the world’s quirkiest institution for choosing the leader of a democratic nation. We’re the only democracy that has one. The founders of our republic didn’t trust the uneducated American people, fearing the tyranny of the mob. Instead, they created a system in which each state decides how to pick delegates to an Electoral College, which meets separately in each state, tallying their votes on a national basis to select the president and vice-president.
The founders assumed that Electoral College delegates would be more thoughtful and well-informed than the citizenry. But it hasn’t worked that way, because political parties pick the delegates and pledge them to specific candidates. For many years, party leaders told delegates, beholden to the party for their jobs in government, how they should vote.
We have tried to reform that process through primary elections and caucuses, which are supposed to let citizens select candidates, instead of the political bosses. But the reforms have had unintended consequences.
Barely twenty percent of voters turn up for the primaries and caucuses—usually, those voters with the most extreme views. That encourages presidential candidates to lie, saying one thing while running for their party’s nomination, then pivoting to say something different in the general election.
The process has become a two-year marathon, with two and a half billion dollars spent in each of the last two presidential elections. The need to raise huge sums of money makes candidates beholden to wealthy donors.
In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned that the political party, which arose at the outset of the republic for the sole purpose of winning elections, “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
In light of Russia’s interference in our last election, you have to wonder if Washington had a crystal ball when he said that the political party “opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
What if, instead of obstructing the people’s will, the Electoral College became a truly representative forum for people from each state to thoughtfully select the president and vice president, as the founders intended?
What if we borrowed an idea from the original Athenian democracy, which selected the majority of its public officials by lottery, like American courts select jurors?
Electoral College delegates would be randomly selected from the tax rolls of each state and congressional district and the District of Columbia. This requires absolutely no change in the U.S. Constitution, which doesn’t prescribe the method for selecting delegates. It could be implemented by changing the selection process on a state-by-state basis.
Supported by appropriate staff, the Electors could interview presidential candidates who might be recommended by the Senate, House, state legislatures and citizen petitions, selecting the president and vice president without a national election. The process could be very transparent, televised over a period of weeks, perhaps with each presidential candidate presenting her or himself in a public interview, accompanied by testimony from others, letters of reference, background reports and the candidates’ federal tax returns. There would be no need for circus-like debates.
Based on the Constitution, Electors would convene in their respective states, with the new digital meeting technology facilitating a unified event, or even better, the Electors could meet in one place. This approach recognizes that ordinary citizens simply don’t have the time nor the facts to make informed decisions amidst their busy lives. But in the right context—with the time to think and reflect, and with balanced information—a group of ordinary citizens, statistically guaranteed to truly represent their fellow Americans, would likely make a far more thoughtful decision than the current partisan election process.
Perhaps the Electoral College—that quirky institution, unique to America—can finally fulfill its original purpose.