Let the chattering classes focus on chads and undervotes and Florida recounts and what the courts–state and federal, all the way up to the Supreme Court–would or wouldn’t do. Let us not forget that the candidate who won the national popular vote falls only three votes short of a clear Electoral College majority even without Florida. If on December 18, the day the Electoral College convenes to cast its ballot, three Republican electors decide on their own to vote for him, all the speculation is moot.
Our purpose is to argue that our three hypothetical electors should so decide and that American democracy would be the better for it. And that this particular election, because it is so close and because it has raised fundamental issues of voting rights, provides the right historic moment for such a gesture. In 1960, another close election, Ted Lewis argued in The Nation that there was such revulsion against the Electoral College that it “would certainly now be on its way out” if it hadn’t “functioned on November 8 in accordance with the national will.”
Election 2000’s clouded outcome has highlighted some glaring flaws in our electoral system–uncounted votes, confused voters, voters rejected (see David Corn, on page 5)–which has stimulated a growing sentiment for reform. And so while the country’s mood is hospitable to reform, why not abolish the most undemocratic institution of all–the Electoral College?
That’s where our hypothetical three electors come in. By casting their votes for the popular-vote winner, in the short run they would guarantee the election of the man who won the popular vote; but more important, in the long run such a gesture might break the antidemocratic stranglehold of the Electoral College on American politics. Let’s be clear: We are not urging them to vote for the popular-vote winner because we support Al Gore. We are urging them to cast such a vote because it would be the right thing to do–legally, morally and politically.
It will immediately be objected that what we are proposing is an invitation to electoral anarchy, that history has rightly stigmatized the thirteen electors who switched their votes in previous presidential elections as “faithless electors.” Besides, Vice President Gore himself has said he would “not accept” Republican electors. But the Vice President has no say about the matter, any more than he has a say about not accepting the vote of those whose party affiliations or (political) motives he finds repugnant. Even a Gore concession speech doesn’t bind the electors.
As for those faithless electors, we would argue that if you have a system of electors instead of direct democracy, the possibility of defection goes with the package. What is more, if three or more Republican electors decide to cross over, far from creating electoral anarchy, their actions would be legally defensible, morally beneficial and politically desirable.
Legally, because under the Electoral College electors are not bound by the Constitution to follow the popular vote, and in twenty-four states they remain free to vote their conscience. In twenty-six others they are required by state law to follow the popular vote. Scholars like Akhil Reed Amar and Mark Tushnet argue that electors are totally free agents.
Morally, because their action would prevent the presidency of a man who lost the popular vote. It also brings us a step closer to the democratic ideal of one person, one vote. The Electoral College was created by the Framers under a deal with the slaveholding states to give those states added clout in the new Union. The Framers distrusted the popular will. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, “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” to choose the “Chief Magistrate.” They did not anticipate political parties or the current practice of electors pledging to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.
Politically, because ultimately the fortunes of both parties–and minority parties as well–would be strengthened by a more democratic government. The smaller states now wield disproportionate influence in elections. And without the need to troll for electoral votes, candidates would be motivated to campaign in all fifty states, not merely the big contested ones.
Passing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College will not be easy. But the dramatic gesture of three electors or more defying the Electoral College could concentrate the nation’s attention wonderfully and help jump-start a movement for reform. It might at least stimulate collateral reforms in the states, along the lines of the present systems of appointing electors in Maine and Nebraska, only carrying it further.
In the past, faithless electors were eccentric loners. This year they could be electors of conscience–the people’s electors. Their action would cause a firestorm in the House. But such high constitutional drama would open a national debate on the legitimacy of the Electoral College. It’s time to start that debate.