Lecture 6 — The U.S. Constitution, Founding Fathers, and the Electoral College
Articles,  Blog

Lecture 6 — The U.S. Constitution, Founding Fathers, and the Electoral College


I wanna see if I can make the U.S. Constitution,
and in particular, the electoral college, relevant for your own lives, and I’m gonna
do that by considering two questions. Question #1 is: why is it that a president
can become president without winning the popular vote; without winning the most votes in an
election? And it’s because of the electoral college
and the two reasons are because of a winner-take-all system and the structure of the United States
Senate. In the United States, every election at the
presidential level, which happens every four years, it’s not really one national election. Rather, it’s fifty different state elections. And the states have opted for a winner-take-all
system, which means that on election night, all a candidate has to do is win a bare majority
of the popular vote within that state. Fifty percent plus one, the bare majority,
and if they get that bare majority, they get to claim ALL of the electoral votes–that’s
the winner-take-all system. And the way it worked out in 2016 is Donald
Trump was able to win a lot of states that had a fairly substantial population, but he
only won the popular vote within those states by small margins. And examples include Florida, North Carolina,
Michigan, and Pennsylvania. If you look at how he won those states, he
only got very small majorities in those states, but because of the winner-take-all system,
he is able to claim ALL of the electoral votes. In contrast, Hillary Clinton won the states
of California, New York, and Illinois and those elections were not close; they were
blow-outs. So that means that, uh, Hillary Clinton ran
up the score in the popular vote but she was able to narrowly lose the electoral college. The other reason is the structure of the Senate. The way we calculate electoral votes is based
on how we decide the number of representatives in the House and the number of U.S. senators. So the electoral college is based on the House
and Senate. If you consider the way the Senate works,
it inherently privileges small states with small populations. Consider the fact that California, the largest
state in the union by population, gets only two senators. Wyoming is the smallest state in the union
by population, but it still gets two senators. So if you consider that the Senate math affects
the electoral college math, then that means that the electoral college–the way we assign
electoral votes–is going to inherently privilege the small states; the rural states. And what that means is that whatever candidate
wins the rural states–those small states–is going to have an advantage in the electoral
college. So I hope that makes sense. It’s happened five times in our history–we’ve
had forty-five presidents and in five instances, the person who became president did not win
the most votes. So, that brings me to another question that
I want to address, which is that, uh, you know, in the aftermath of 2016, which was
a very controversial election, you had Democrats–the supporters of Hillary Clinton on the one hand
saying, you know, this system is unfair, uh, how is it that Trump can become president
when he lost the popular vote by so much? And on the other hand, what Trump and his
supporters would say is that, well, this is our system and, uh, the founders were very
wise men and they created a republic. And, you know, the system we have today is
working exactly how the founders intended for it to work. And I want to address that question because
these debates are going on right now. So the question I’m addressing is, is the
way in which we pick a president, is it working the same way that the founding fathers, who
erected the United States Constitution, which is still our current government today, is
the electoral college working as intended? And the answer is: probably not. Okay? And I want to go over the reasons why that
is. The first one being is that when the Constitution
was created, there were no political parties. You probably learned this before; that the
founding fathers were very much against political parties; they saw them as factions and they
had seen factions in Britain and they did not want to replicate that system. So our structure of government was created
when there were no parties, but now all of the sudden we have parties and partisanship
and tribal loyalties. So that makes it difficult. Another reason why it’s very hard to say that
the electoral college is working exactly as intended is that the electoral college, and
for that matter, the Constitution, says nothing about a winner-take-all system. This is something that came later. So as I said, in the beginning, on election
night, if you win fifty percent plus one, you get to claim all of the state’s electoral
votes. But that’s a decision that is left up to the
states. And that’s what the Constitution says. The Constitution gives a lot of latitude to
each individual state to decide how it assigns its electoral votes. But here’s the thing you should understand
about that: each state, and back in the day it was New York and Pennsylvania that wanted
a lot of political power, they wanted to increase their own power, so what they did is they
adopted that winner-take-all system, okay, to give their own state more power. Another reason that you could very much look
at the electoral college as flawed is that slavery was one of the considerations that
influenced the creation of the electoral college. The fact of the matter was is that they considered
having a direct, popular vote, and the founders said “no,” we are skeptical of the average,
ordinary citizen, and in fact, the same debates that created the way that the House of Representatives
works were all part of the same discussion of how we created the electoral college. Now let me be clear, slavery was not the only
reason that we have an electoral college. However, I want to emphasize that it was definitely
one reason. Now how exactly does that work? Well, when they created the House of Representatives,
they had to ask the question of how are we going to assign representatives based on all
the slaves living in the South? And of course they settled on the three-fifths
clause; this compromise between the North and South. The three-fifths clause gave extra representatives
to white southerners and because the electoral college is based on the House and Senate,
therefore anything that affects the House, including the three-fifths clause, is going
to affect the electoral college. And it’s because of that concept I’m describing
to you that a lot of the initial presidents in our nation’s history between Washington
and Lincoln, something like all but 2 of them, uh, were either slaveholders or voting in
ways that were sympathetic to slave interests. Okay? So the initial electoral college gave a big
advantage to, uh, slaveholding interests and in fact, that affected the executive branch,
which in turn, affected the Supreme Court. Furthermore, the electoral college was *amended*
in the first decade of the nineteenth century by the Twelfth Amendment. So in 1789, the way that they picked the president–that
had to be, uh, fixed later on. And the Twelfth Amendment basically deals
with the way in which we pick, uh, the presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate. One point that’s worth emphasizing when you
consider today’s news and politics is that the founding fathers designed an electoral
college to prevent the ascent of a demagogue. And then you have to ask yourself, is it working
as intended? Probably not, because a lot of very astute
and intelligent commentators today would say that the current president exhibits tendencies
of authoritarianism and acting like a demagogue. And all of this brings up an important question
that you often see whenever you talk about U.S. history is, you know, when we consider
questions of the electoral college and how to pick our president, what usually gets brought
up is, hmmm, what did the founders think about this? And, I guess my own perspective on this is
that I want to discourage you from thinking of the founding fathers as these god-like
heroes because we have to remind ourselves that they were men; they were men of their
time, of the late-18th century and they had a lot of values and assumptions that we do
not share today. So, you know, when somebody asks, what did
the founders think of this, and this and that, I like to turn that question on its head and
say, why should we run a society in the twenty-first century according to values of late-18th century,
propertied, white men? I often ask my students in the classroom,
“Raise your hand if you are a white man with property.” And I’ll tell you something, uh, almost nobody
raises their hand. So if you were to get in a machine that could
magically send you back in time ala Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, unless you are
a white man with property, um, you did not have the ability to vote. That is an example of a value that has changed
over time. So this is an illustration of that we should
avoid what they sometimes call “the nostalgia trap.” This notion of feeling like well, it was so
great back then, and you know, our leaders once used to be very wise and if only we could
run our country like the way we used to run it, um, you know, that may be true in some
circumstances, but we have to be careful of having that natural tendency of nostalgia,
and in fact, a lot of professional, academic, and scholarly historians like to push back
against that. We have to remind ourselves that the founding
fathers could not have anticipated every problem that we confront today. Uh, they created a constitution when the nation
was predominantly agricultural. Uh, but when the industrial revolution happened,
it created new conditions in which, uh, the people decided that they wanted labor unions,
they wanted health insurance, they wanted social security. But the Constitution says nothing about whether
you can have social security or not. So uh, that’s something to consider. Uh, again, this point about the founding fathers
being able to anticipate problems, at the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790, the
gap between the largest state by population and the smallest state was a ratio of 12:1. Could the founders have anticipated that California
would have close to *seventy* times the population as Wyoming and yet they would each get two
senators? Probably not! It’s doubtful that they could have anticipated
that problem. Now you might say, of course, well that’s
why they created an amendment process. If problems arose, you can amend the Constitution. But here again, we run into that problem of
political parties. Okay? If the country is divided, close to 50-50
as it is today, then you’re gonna have an extremely difficult time getting a constitutional
amendment passed. Okay? So, you know, we’ve only had seventeen amendments
since the Bill of Rights in 1791. So, um, and, two of them have ruled each other
out, that’s an example of how difficult it is to amend the Constitution. Couple other points, uh, about the electoral
college. Uh, no other system in the world has replicated
it. So if you are thinking and you have this position
that, uh, you know, the founders had some wise system, you have to realize that it was
a makeshift; it was a compromise. And, um, you know, it was the least bad system
they thought at the time. But no other country in the world has adopted
it and furthermore, even in our *own* country, uh, you know, every elected office from the
mayor to the state senator to your representative even down to dog catcher, they have a rule
that it’s fifty percent plus one. Uh, and yet, for some strange reason that
only historians and political scientists can tell you, we have a system that picks the
most powerful person in the world, uh, that sometimes the person who wins the most votes,
uh, doesn’t get to win elected office. So to conclude here, uh, lesson #1: listen
to historians, the people that have dedicated their lives to the subject and [lesson #2]:
whatever your position is on policies, be able to articulate them with historical evidence,
without resorting to catchphrases and bumper stickers. Okay, take care, bye!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *