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    Categories: Commentary

Elections and Democracy

G.A. Dwyer Astaphan

by G.A.Dwyer Astaphan

The result of last week’s US presidential election has raised the question as to whether the process is fair and democratic.

Why? Because Mrs. Hillary Clinton received over a million votes more than Mr. Donald Trump, yet Mr.Trump will take the oath of office come January 20, 2017, and become the 45th President of the United States of America.

How could this be? The answer is: the Electoral College.

The Electoral College has a very interesting genesis and evolution, starting with the notion that Congress, and not the people, should elect a President.

As I understand it, the history of the Electoral College has been influenced by the different situations in the US North and South with regard to slavery, by the concern of smaller states that their voices could be overwhelmed by larger states, and by the perception among the politically powerful that the responsibility of placing individuals in the highest offices of the land required a sense of understanding and sophistication that was above the pay grade of the average voter.

Madison, Hamilton and the other architects of the Electoral College weren’t willing to entrust this power to the ordinary folks, referred to by one of the political elites of the day as “the brutish beasts”.

Yes, the brutish beasts, or those among them who were allowed to vote, would be given a chance to participate in the fun and games, but final and definitive decision-making would be left to the elites, also known as the Electoral College.

This arrangement has survived time, and still today, the situation is this: the President and Vice President of the United States of America are elected, not directly by the people, but by the Electoral College which consists of 538 persons called “presidential electors” who’re selected from, and by, that country’s 50 states and Washington, DC., in a manner  determined by the laws of each state, and in a process that is influenced by the major political parties.

On Election Day the people vote, then after Election Day, the Electoral College votes .

As it has turned out over time, however, the candidate with the majority of the popular vote in a state, in a winner-take-all arrangement (except for two smaller states) gets the votes of the presidential electors ( the Electoral College) in that state.

So there is in a very real sense a harmony in the arrangement, save and except for the fact that, after over 200 years of nationhood, the question arises from time to time  as to whether the Electoral College should be continued in a modern democracy.

Haven’t Americans come of age yet, to the point where they can truly declare theirs to be a country of one man, one vote? Are they still not intellectually ready and sufficiently politically and socially conscious and discerning to have the full and final say as to who occupies their White House?

The answer to this question given by them, not by me, is a resounding ‘NO’. They’re not ready. If they were, the Electoral College would’ve been abolished.

But  here’s a little possible irony that you may wish to chew on. The majority of the ordinary folks in America who are deemed not ready to be given the full and final say in presidential elections, the same “brutish beasts’, voted for the candidate who was painted by her opponent and his surrogates as being of ‘the Establishment’, while the Electoral College, which is the Establishment, is voting for the candidate who swore that he is not of the Establishment.

The confusion is cleared up a bit by the fact that Mr. Trump won sufficient states to reach the target of 270 Electoral College votes required to win the election. He lost in the most populated states and that explains his one million vote deficit. But he  won, not just sufficient states to win the Electoral College, but most of the states.

If you look at the political map of the United States, you will see that most of them are so-called ‘red states’, that is, Republican states.

And it is this mix and rationalization of popular votes and Electoral College votes that strives to strike a just balance in the American presidential election process, between the power of the individual vote and the need to give a voice to smaller, less populated states.

Now America is not the only country where one man, one vote cannot be proclaimed.

The same can be said for the United Kingdom, St.Kitts & Nevis and the other countries  which have first-past-the-post electoral systems. In these countries also, a party can get into office having lost the popular vote.

So while we reflect on, and discuss, the US system, and ask whether it is truly a democracy, maybe we need to also think about our own, and how we might be able to improve it..

As I end, let me share this with you : five persons have become US President by winning the Electoral College vote after having lost the popular vote.

The first was John Quincy Adams in 1824. Then there was Benjamin Harrison in 1876, followed by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald J. Trump in 2016.

And all were Republicans. Well, to be fair, John Quincy Adams was not much of a fan of political parties, but he ran as what was then described as a “National Republican”.

Not one Democrat.

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