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Now should we get rid of the Electoral College?

Waiting for Donald Trump: First of a series on the 2016 presidential election and what comes next.

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The Electoral College has voted, so we can put that modest bit of suspense behind us. On January 20, Donald Trump will become president of the United States. What may not be behind us is the debate over the Electoral College itself.

We’re not likely to get rid of it any time soon; that would require an amendment to the Constitution, meaning that it would need approval by two-thirds of the members of the House and the Senate and ratification by legislators in three-fourths of the states. And in this divided, Republican-dominated country, there seems little chance we would pull that off.

Still, for those of us worried about this year’s election result, it’s worth weighing the positives and negatives of the Electoral College as we watch that result start having an impact on the country.

The big negative is obvious: This year, as in 2000, the Electoral College has given the presidency to someone most voters didn’t want.

Several issues shaped the creation of the Electoral College as the founders drafted the Constitution. One, of course, was slavery. The representatives from the South were afraid that the preferences of voters in the southern states constituents would be outweighed by those of people from the North. A lot of people lived in the South, but many of them were slaves, who couldn’t vote (and, of course, white southerners weren’t interested in letting them vote).

Another issue: some of the founders didn’t trust the common people. A select group like an Electoral College, they figured, would be better informed, better suited to pick the person best qualified to lead the nation. The Electoral College would be a protection against the election of somebody who, for instance, might be a dangerous but charismatic person who could whip up the masses and get their votes.

Many of us, of course, believe that this year we’ve witnessed the opposite, that the popular vote went to the best-qualified person, and the Electoral College has just elected exactly the kind of person it was designed to block.

Well, then, don’t the electors have a responsibility to choose the person who is the best qualified? After all, no federal law requires electors to vote for the candidate who won their state. The Constitution doesn’t require it, either.

More than half the states do have laws requiring it; the others don’t. And even in those that do, electors who act otherwise don’t face much of a penalty, if any.

Historically, though, most electors have followed the will of the voters in their state. And even when some haven’t, it hasn’t made a difference in the election outcome.

An election like this year’s, then, presents a dilemma. Where do the electors’ owe their allegiance? To the voters who trusted them to reflect their wishes? Or – if those particular voters’ wishes will put an unqualified person in the White House – to the greater good of the nation?

It’s tempting to say that the latter is the easy choice. But as Columbia Law School Professor David Pozen noted recently in a New York Times article, think of what would happen if the Electoral College had given the presidency to Hillary Clinton this week. Even if Donald Trump gracefully accepted that outcome, huge numbers of his supporters would not. The divisiveness and the anger we’ve seen this year would pale in comparison.

In the end, which is the greater danger to the nation? Over the next four or more years, we’ll find out.
Donald Trump won the required number of Electoral College votes. Hillary Clinton did not. In this country, that’s how we elect a president. I don’t like this year’s outcome. But I accept it.

Then should we focus our efforts on trying to get rid of the Electoral College? I don’t know. What happens during the Trump presidency will help me make up my mind, I guess.

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