By ALAN J. ORTBALS
One of the greatest gifts that George Washington gave to this nation was voluntarily stepping down from the presidency after two terms. That might seem like a small thing but I assure you it’s not. Following his stunning defeat of the British army, many Americans wanted to make him king. He declined, saying, “I didn’t fight George III to become George I.”
History is full of cases where revolution replaced one despot with another. In 1789, the French overthrew King Louis XVI only to see him replaced by Napoleon. In 1917, the Russians overthrew the Czar and ended up with a Communist dictatorship. See also, Cuba and Castro.
What Washington started was a sacred tradition of the orderly transfer of power. With the exception of 1860, that tradition has been maintained through tumultuous times and bitter campaigns. Al Gore understood how important this was; how it was one of the things that made America exceptional; and how the ongoing battle over the election of 2000 needed to come to an end for the good of the nation.
The basis of this system of orderly change lies with the general belief that the election has been decided fairly and honestly. The rule of law, after all, only works if the law reflects the mores of society. If the majority of a nation’s citizens lose faith and respect for the process, the system fails.
I fear that we are headed in that direction now. The demonstrations in the streets of many American cities following this year’s election, I think, are simply a harbinger of things to come. Unless we change the rules, it will only get worse.
The Electoral College was established for two basic reasons. One was that democracy was a new and untested concept. While the Founding Fathers were steeped in the philosophy of the time, they were not at all sure that they could trust the general populace to act wisely in choosing their leaders. So, the idea was, as Alexander Hamilton put it, that the selection of the president should be “made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of president].” These electors were to have complete autonomy to cast their votes as they saw fit.
The creation of the Electoral College system was also a concession to the small states — not small geographically but small in population — and this, in large part, was based on the desire of the southern states to protect slavery. The southern states were much smaller in population and they feared being outnumbered and outvoted in the national government. The electoral system gave more heft to small states whose populations didn’t justify it. Other concessions were also made to get their support: each state got two senators regardless of its population and three-fifths of a state’s slaves were counted in determining the number of representatives it would get in the House.
The system has morphed over the centuries so that now it’s nothing more than a point system — win Illinois, get 20 Electoral votes; win Missouri, your prize is 10. No longer do we choose “men most capable of analyzing the qualities…” Now, we don’t know who they are and all but two states use a winner-take-all system. That’s how George W. Bush was elected president while receiving 500,000 less votes than Al Gore. And that’s how Hillary Clinton lost the presidency despite a plurality of nearly 3 million popular votes.
This has not been a common occurrence in American history. Other than the two I just mentioned, it hasn’t happened since 1888. But, the fact that it has now occurred in two of the last five elections is important.
The election of the president has become a game in which the majority feels tricked, like Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown. At some point, they will lose faith in the system and respect for the process.
The Electoral College is not the only culprit that is undermining our democracy. Gerrymandering Congressional districts muffles the voice of the majority and alienates them from their government. The ridiculous filibuster rule in the Senate that requires 60 votes to take a bathroom break does much the same thing.
In January 2001, the Congressional Black Caucus walked out rather than ratify the vote of the Electoral College. This year, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the nation to protest the result of the election. We need to be listening.
Through the years we have been wise enough to change the rules by which the game of government is played. It’s part of the reason our republic has endured for more than two centuries. It’s time to do it again.