ELECTION OF THE U.S. PRESIDENT BY DIRECT VOTE?

A recent essay (Ergül 2021) suggests that states could choose electors in a way that would effectively assure election of the U.S. president by direct popular vote.

“The power to decide how electors are selected is left to the state legislatures and chosen electors are at the liberty to vote for their desired candidate. The state  legislatures can amend their state constitutions in a way that would require choosing electors that would vote according to the national popular vote.” 

Without legal expertise on the author’s proposition, it seems plausible, though highly unlikely.  The majority of states without large metropolitan populations would lose in such a system and so would hardly be likely to vote for it.

The really important underlying issue is the author’s expressed opinion that the proper way to elect a president is by direct popular vote. The system referred to would be a device to overcome the obstacle of the electoral college. The widely held current view about the desirability of direct election of the president seems fueled by the election of Donald Trump in 2016 in spite of Hillary Clinton’s greater popular vote. Partisan political perspectives affect both Democrats and Republicans. I’ll get to Trump later, but first let’s consider the direct vote problem in more generic terms.

The main argument favoring a raw plebiscite for president is that it gives each person an equal voice. I.e. it is “fair” and gives equal weight to voters in large metropolitan areas. However, the stakes in political governance go beyond fairness, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best candidate qualifications. In the election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was initially behind his Democratic opponent, failed General George B. McClellan, until the Union victory in Atlanta.

The framers were keenly aware of the risks in having pure popular opinion determine the election of our most powerful political leaders. Besides the electoral college system for determining the winner among candidates for president, the framers’ original provision for electing Senators was by vote of state legislatures, not popular vote. Only Representatives, chosen for the term of two years,  were elected by direct vote.

The framers realized that popular mood was liable to be excessively influenced by the personal charisma of politicians and urgently-felt issues. They wanted a modicum of balance in the election of the president. Let’s look at early presidential governance. Following the precedent of George Washington, the next five presidents followed the principle of appointing government officials based on competence and permanence – not partisan politics (van Riper 1958). A powerful demonstration of the potential downsides of electing a president based on public popularity came with the election of a colorful and strong-willed general, Andrew Jackson, in 1829. Jackson easily defeated the reelection campaign of President John Quincy Adams, one of our best educated and most visionary politicians, but who notably lacked the popular touch.

Swept into office through personal charisma, anti-elitism arguments, and the influx of Irish immigrants, Jackson instituted the spoils system that created a turnover in government at presidential elections. It prevented the establishment of effective federal administrative structures during much of the 19th  Century – leading to problems still troubling us today. Jackson was an advocate for slavery, directed the shameful uprooting of the Cherokee Indian nation with the  “Trail of Tears” forced migration to Oklahoma, and killed the 2nd U.S. National Bank, which precipitated a devastating economic crash. Long respected as a powerful populist, recognition of Jackson’s flaws finally led to plans to remove his image from our $20 bill.

Donald Trump showed the ability of a gifted demagogue to capture people’s imagination and gain high office. While some of his policies are defended as reforms and others are continued by the Biden administration (e.g. China policy) Trump took increasingly crude and antidemocratic actions during his tenure of office, bringing about intense opposition and impeachment proceedings. Other politicians elected through popular movements might not be prone to Trump’s egregious behaviors but nevertheless promote flawed policies based on ideology and popular pressure. Political polarization is a price we are paying for emotionally-driven rather than more rationally guided politics.

Finally, a pure popular vote for president could promote semi-permanent hegemony of populous metropolitan areas in presidential elections, effectively disenfranchising the majority of rural states and areas and small towns. This would likely continue current polarization. Would it really be desirable to go this route?

Reference

Ergül, Kardelen,  2021. “Would Forty States Creating Amendments to Their Constitutions to Direct Their Electoral College Votes to the Winner of the National Popular Vote Create a Constitutional Crisis? Academia Letters: https://www.academia.edu/49926659/Would_Forty_States_Creating_Amendments_to_Their_Constitutions_to_Direct_Their_Electoral_College_Votes_to_the_Winner_of_the_National_Popular_Vote_Create_a_Constitutional_Crisis?email_work_card=title

Van Riper, Paul P. 1958. History of the Civil Service: University of Michigan Press

 

To comment: contact fmanhei1@gmu.edu