hearts and minds

May 11, 2010

The People Shall Elect the President

Filed under: Bill of Rights,Politics & elections,Wisconsin legislature — Hearts & Minds @ 4:46 pm

The people elect government officials, with each citizen’s vote counting the same as any other’s vote – that’s representative democracy. That’s the American way. It couldn’t be simpler. Unfortunately, that’s not how we elect the President and Vice-President of the United States. Fortunately, there is a brilliant, elegant solution.

The U.S. Constitution* lays down the basic ground rules for our federal government, and it’s worked pretty well for over two hundred years. It’s worked partly because it includes a mechanism to allow change to the Constitution itself. Anything that unnecessarily gets in the way of democracy and of government that is of, by, and for the people, should be shoveled clear out of the way. If there’s something important missing or not right, and if law or executive order or simple regulation can’t fix it, or the courts are in a box they can’t climb out of, the citizens of the United States can apply Article V to amend the Constitution*.

But it’s always better to figure out how to make the Constitution work, as it is, rather than amending it for every situation that crops up. That’s the wise and proper, legal course to take. Don’t use a D-9 Cat when a D-6, or a shovel, will do the job nicely. Don’t tear up a whole section of the highway to fix a pothole. Don’t amend the Constitution when the problem can be fixed with law, or simple enforcement, under the existing Constitution. That’s being conservative … without being hidebound. And (if you’ll check the historical record) that is also how important changes in our Constitution actually started – with state laws that fixed the problem and proved to be worthy, and later led to Constitutional Amendments when an overriding national consensus was finally achieved.

For example, the Constitution did not initially establish women’s right to vote. The Women’s Suffrage Movement, in mid 19th century, sought to gain the right of women to vote by challenging the denial of that right in federal court, asserting that the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) guaranteed citizenship and “the privileges and immunities of citizens”, and “the equal protection of the laws” to all persons – including women. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to recognize and accept this simple, straightforward argument, and ruled against them. The Women’s Suffrage Movement then focused on winning change in state laws and state constitutions. When more and more states had made the necessary changes to allow women to vote, and sufficient political momentum had built, the Congress finally proposed, and the states ratified the 19th Amendment, in 1920. Had the Supreme Court recognized the 14th Amendment argument when it was made, the subsequent prodigious cost and effort involved in amending the Constitution again would have been unnecessary, and women would have won the right to vote in America a full generation earlier.

The Founders wrote a Constitution* with convoluted, indirect ways to elect our Senators and our President and Vice-President. Article I Section 3 of the Constitution stated, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof…” Most state legislatures soon decided to let the people themselves vote, and eventually, the 17th Amendment was ratified, which established that Senators are to be “elected by the people”. The President (as well as the V.P.) was (and still is) chosen by “Electors”. Article II Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress …”. These “Electors” then meet and vote, and their votes are counted, as directed by Article II Section 1, and by the 12th Amendment (which rendered obsolete the entire third paragraph in Section 1).

The Constitution* was amended immediately, with the crucially important Bill of Rights. The Founders themselves thus demonstrated for all posterity how and why the Constitution can and should be amended. And we all know that the Constitution itself was a product of political compromises driven by the circumstances of those times**. For example, the Constitution itself explicitly countenanced and tacitly approved slavery and racial discrimination – until the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were ratified almost a century later.

Even with its imperfections, proposals to amend the Constitution should be carefully considered, and should be rejected if the problems they are meant to address can be corrected by simple enactment of state or federal law that complies with the Constitution. Such is the case with the two very significant problems resulting from our current method of electing a President. Abolishing the “Electoral College”, and instituting direct election by the citizens would correct those problems. But that would require a constitutional amendment, and there is a brilliant, straightforward solution to those problems that does not require changing our Constitution*.

That solution is the National Popular Vote Compact***.

There are two big problems caused by the current way we elect a president in the U.S. First, and most important, is the grotesque distortion of election campaigns that fail to address the issues that are important to real people, and blatantly ignore the vast majority of citizens. Second is the ever-present possibility of a candidate being named President who did not win the vote of the people on “election day”, which has already happened 4 times, including once 10 years ago.

Modern presidential election campaigns focus virtually all their resources and attention on winning votes from a single digit percentage of “undecided” voters in a literal handful of contested “swing states”. The great majority of citizens in the half a dozen or so swing states, and everyone in the rest of the states, have become irrelevant bystanders in the presidential elections, ignored by the campaign strategists of both major parties, and by the mass media. And unless you are one of those few people from one of those few winner-take-all states that are still “up for grabs” according to the party pollsters, the election campaign isn’t about you and ignores you. The issues being discussed are ones that make you sick, not the ones you care about. The National Popular Vote Compact*** will guarantee that every voter in every state will be politically relevant in every presidential election and that every vote will be equal.

If you are like most Americans and you believe that the President and Vice President should be elected by the people, with every citizen’s vote counting the same, then you don’t want to see a repeat of those previous elections in our history (including the first election in the 21st century!) where the guy selected to be President actually failed to win the vote of the people. Similarly, in the second election of the 21st century, if just a few thousand votes in one state (Ohio) had gone the other way, the person that was selected by the Electoral College would not have won the presidency, despite having gotten some three million more popular votes.

The National Popular Vote Compact takes care of both those problems. It solves these problems while fully complying with the Constitution, and without amending the Constitution. What could be simpler – and better – than that? Amending the Constitution is the hard way, and it opens a can of constitutional law worms. The National Popular Vote Compact is the right way to initiate this long overdue change.

Both nationwide and in Wisconsin, over 70 percent of citizens support the National Popular Vote Compact. At the beginning of 2012, the states that have already enacted NPV represent 49 percent of the electoral votes necessary to activate the Compact and elect the President and Vice President by the majority of the national popular vote. Visit the NPVC web site at http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/, first, to learn more about it, and then to help the grassroots effort to put the Compact into effect by urging your state legislators and Governor to support it.


* Original text of the U.S. Constitution, with Amendments: http://constitutionus.com/

** “… the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.”
[From the Letter of Transmittal accompanying the proposed Constitution submitted to the United States in Congress assembled, signed by George Washington, September 17, 1787.] ****

*** Explanation of the National Popular Vote Compact It’s all here for you:
Select from a 1-sentence description, 3 sentences, 1 page, an 8-page memo, or a 620-page book.

**** Note: One “peculiarity of our political situation” in 1787 was that millions of people in what then became the United States were slaves and people of color, millions more were women, and more millions were men who did not own real estate. Each of these classes had distinctly different status, but none were considered to have the same rights as did white men who owned property. One “deference and concession” to this “peculiarity” was that the Constitution proposed and ratified unanimously in 1787 (while it did not grant the rights of citizenship and of voting to these other classes of persons) actually counted those classes for the purpose of apportioning representation in the federal government in the House of Representatives and in the Electors who selected the President. The result was that the more women, slaves, and others without property there were in a Representative District or a state, the greater was the relative electoral power held by the propertied men who resided there. It was not, by a long shot, “one person, one vote” in those days. That and other principles of democracy could only be established and realized by protracted struggle, by individual, collective, and state initiative, and by Constitutional Amendment. The abolition of slavery, and the civil rights (of women, people of color, and white men who did not own real estate) to vote, hold office, and be citizens was first accomplished in certain states. But as far as our U.S. Constitution was concerned, it was the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery throughout the United States. And, believe it or not, there were no rights specifically and exclusively granted by the U.S. Constitution to a “citizen of the United States” (except the right to hold office as a Representative, Senator, President or Vice-President) until the very important 14th Amendment was ratified. Until then the definition of “citizen of the United States” was up to the individual states, and it was up to the whim of each state whether to guarantee any person the right of due process and equal protection of the law. The 15th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution explicitly defined certain very important voting rights of citizens that did not exist according to the original Constitution. It was those Amendments that established (among other things) that voting and other civil rights could not depend on whether a person owned property, or was a white male. The U.S. Constitution has never been, is not now, and can never be limited in scope or application to exactly what the Founders intended in 1787. The Founders, after all, were men born and bred into, and profiting from, a “political situation” where women had no legal rights, and human beings were considered property to be disposed of however their legal owners saw fit. As times and the “peculiarities of our political situation” change, the Constitution changes.


  1. A survey of 800 Wisconsin state voters conducted on December 12-14, 2008 showed 71% overall support for a national popular vote for President.

    Support was 81% among Democrats, 67% among independents, and 63% among Republicans.

    By age, support was 68% among 18-29 year olds, 62% among 30-45 year olds, 72% among 46-65 year olds, and 76% for those older than 65.

    By gender, support was 80% among women and 61% among men.


    Comment by mvymvy — May 11, 2010 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

  2. So, if the screwed up electoral college wasn’t bad enough, we can now simply shift the blame for the state of the country back onto the ‘voters’ again (even while the choices they are given a single shot at are all bad).
    Any word about having the UN monitor our elections for fairness and corruption and weak turnout?

    What about the idea of a run-off based on actual numbers of votes, where people are also given a 2nd and 3rd choice, and the one who receives the most points actually wins?

    The way the system works now, the majority is guaranteed to get someone they didn’t choose.
    With a 2nd choice system, their next best choice would get some credit, and if everyone chooses Kucinich or Ron Paul as their 2nd and 3rd choices, we might actually get some governing instead of just a bunch of bribed whores.

    Comment by Dan C — May 11, 2010 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

    • It doesn’t seem reasonable or helpful to denigrate a reform proposal, Dan, simply on the grounds that it doesn’t fix every one of our myriad problems. Especially when you have not presented a shred of argument (let alone evidence) that the advocated reform itself is in any way inherently faulty or unhelpful.

      Instant Runoff Voting is also a very valuable idea, but it is a different reform than the National Popular Vote Compact, Dan. This article is about the National Popular Vote Compact.

      For starters, IRV can be initiated in any municipality, state, or for all national elected offices, can put an end to both primary and runoff elections, and can allow voters to vote for the candidate they really prefer without “wasting” their time and their ballot. NPVC applies only to presidential general elections, and does what the article says it does. And guess what – I don’t think either one of those reforms is going to fix everything that is wrong with government and human nature. But they are both steps worth taking.

      By the way, those so inclined could choose Kucinich or Paul or Nader or anyone as their FIRST choice (not their second or third choice) if we had IRV – and still not waste their ballot. It’s a great way to begin to break the stranglehold the two major parties have on elections and “our” government. And it would also save citizens a lot of time and money on primary elections and runoff special elections.

      Rather than criticize (as you did) the National Popular Vote concept by saying that Instant Runoff Voting is a “better” or “more important” reform, I’d point out the advantages for democracy, and for cost control, of BOTH reforms, together – not one instead of the other.


      Comment by clydewinter — May 11, 2010 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

  3. Haha I’m actually the only reply to this amazing post.

    Comment by Candy Montoya — June 15, 2010 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  4. If only I had a dime for every time I came here… Great writing!

    Comment by Sue Wolff — June 15, 2010 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

  5. If one is to talk about electing President by peoples’ vote in this country, the very first reaction that we would see coming from is going to be from the Politicians and they would perhaps even be up in arms against the very thought of having to elect the President from Peoples’ vote because it is their privilege to elect the President of the Country. We have had Presidents from all backgrounds but they did little to even think of changing the system ruled by the politicians and for the politicians.We cannot afford anylonger the political hegemony in the country. The President does not even utter a single word on what is happening in the country, is this the worth of the President for the country.Politicians are a shrewd lot and they only do what is conducive for them. The campaign which is currently going on under the banner India Against Corruption should not be allowed to die down because the politicians are trying to give it a silent death and a burial thereafter.

    Comment by R K Gupta — July 22, 2011 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  6. […] 95 percent of us because (like most people) we happen to live in a gerrymandered district, or in a state that is not a “battleground state”, one of the many that is conceded, during a Presidential election, to one or the other of the two […]

    Pingback by Fair Representation of the People in a Real Democratic Republic | hearts and minds — March 11, 2014 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

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