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The Republic: Dangling by a thread

By Henry Lamb
web posted December 22, 2008

Democracy is often described as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.  Democracy is mob rule.  Democracy collapses when the majority discovers it can vote for itself treasure from the public coffers.  Democracy is the last plateau of social order before anarchy.

America's founders knew this and chose not to create a Democracy, and opted instead to create a Federal Republic.   A cornerstone of this republic was the Senate, whose members were chosen by state legislatures to represent the states.  Members of the House of Representatives were chosen by the people to represent the populace.  This balance was destroyed on April 8, 1913, when the 17th Amendment was ratified, taking the election of Senators away from state legislatures and submitting their election to the popular vote.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the change stripped states of an important power to impose a check and balance on the expanding power of the federal government.

The last remaining vestige of a Federal Republic is the Electoral College, an ingeniously designed system to insure that small states are not overrun by large states in the election of the President.  Now, there is a powerful movement afoot to bypass the Constitution, and the amendment process, and destroy the Electoral College which will transform America into a pure Democracy. 

The National Popular Vote movement seeks to get legislation adopted in enough states to guarantee that the President will be the candidate who receives the majority of the popular vote, thereby nullifying Constitutionally-prescribed Electoral College.  Four states – Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey – have adopted this legislation.  The legislation has been approved by at least one legislative chamber in 21 additional states. The idea is supported by hundreds of state and federal legislators and is well on its way to becoming the law of the land.

While it may seem like a good idea to elect the President by popular vote, there are good and valid reasons why our founders rejected the idea, and created the Electoral College instead.  These reasons are valid today, and are even more important since the 17th Amendment has been adopted.

The Constitution directs each state to select "Electors" equal to its number of Representatives and Senators.  The Electors from each state cast their vote for the candidate who receives the majority of popular votes from its state (except in Maine and Nebraska).   Since there are a total of 538 Electoral College votes, 270 votes are required to elect a President. 

The National Popular Vote legislation would require each state Elector to vote for the candidate who won the national popular vote – regardless of how his particular state voted.  A similar proposal would require that the Electors' votes be proportioned to represent the percentage each candidate received.  Either method would result in changing the Constitution through legislation, and bypassing the Constitutional amendment process.  But it would do much, much more.  It would give the presidency to the candidate chosen by urban population centers, and effectively disenfranchise small, rural states. 

The genius of the Electoral College designed by the founders is that it provides at least a degree of check and balance against the nation being perpetually led by a President chosen by urbanites.  The Electoral College requires candidates to be aware of, and concerned about the desires of all states, not just the states with the largest populations.

This is not a small or insignificant matter.  George W. Bush was elected with 271 Electoral College votes in 2000, while Al Gore received a majority of popular votes.  This outcome demonstrates the need for a candidate to appeal to all states, not just population centers.  Of course, Gore supporters, outraged by the loss, called for an end to the Electoral College.  Had the numbers and the outcome been reversed, Gore's supporters would have loved the Electoral College, and Bush's supporters would have called for its end.

It is essential that the President of the United States never be the choice of one segment of the population, or a "faction," as James Madison feared.  The President must represent the broadest possible range of ideas and concerns of Americans all across the varied landscape.

As frustrating as gridlock and partisan politics may be, it is a process that serves as an anchor to slow the abuse of political power.  This process has been known to spawn compromises that rise up as better ideas than either side could produce alone.  It is the process envisioned and created by America's founders.  It is the system that made America the greatest nation on earth.  It is a system that must not be tossed aside lightly, simply because a segment of the population or "faction" may find it inconvenient.

America is not a Democracy, nor was it designed to be.  America is a Federal Republic.  The structures that make it so must be guarded and protected.  The Electoral College is the foundation of this structure – and it is dangling by a thread. ESR

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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