Thoughts on Our Corrupted Presidential Election Process

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Article V Blog – April 10th 2016. Did the Framers actually bequeath the circa 2016 Animal House presidential election process?

Nothing occupied the Federal Convention of 1787 more than debate involving the executive branch. One man would be responsible for executing the laws passed by a free people and corporate states. More than sixty votes were necessary to define the method of presidential election. From near the beginning of the convention on May 25th and almost to the end, September 17th, the Framers wrestled with presidential powers, the balance of those powers with congress, and how a free people could design an office that precluded the trappings of monarchy, minimized internal and external corruption and prevented foreign influence. What sort of electoral system would encourage the election or appointment of men with the necessary personal qualities to honorably fulfill enormous responsibilities?

Just as the people-at-large were not entrusted with electing senators, neither did the Constitution invite the people into the presidential electoral system, and for the same reason: they were certain to fall under the spell of demagogues. To limit populist manipulators and the factionalism they bring, our presidential election design is a clumsy, confusing system involving five entities: the states, the house, the senate, congress sitting in joint session, and a one day confab not identified in the Constitution, the electoral college.

State legislatures responsible for appointing presidential electors. Article II § 1:

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: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

“In such manner as the legislature thereof may direct” placed enormous responsibility on the states. Just as state legislators served to filter the will of the people in senatorial appointments, it was hoped they would exercise prudential judgment in presidential elections. Ideally, state legislators, typically concerned with local matters, would be elevated into national statesmen for one day every four years. They would appoint presidential electors from the wise, virtuous and dignified men they knew. Through this filtered system which entrusted so much to the judgment of the few, the Framers vastly increased the likelihood of presidents with national appeal in possession of the requisite qualities so necessary in republics: virtue, discretion and honor.

Alternatively, state legislators could establish popular election of presidential electors. Some states immediately did just this; they punted the selection of presidential electors to the popular will. From very the beginning, in the 1789 election of George Washington, four state legislatures introduced democracy to the electoral process. Popular suffrage, of course, was far more limited in those days, but the democratic element in presidential elections grew quickly. By 1820, only seven of  twenty-three state legislatures (MO, AL, IN, LA, VT, DE, SC) directly appointed presidential electors. The last holdout was South Carolina in 1860.[i]

Perhaps it was unrealistic for the Framers to entertain the idea that democracy, factionalism and political party domination could be kept out of the election for chief executive, yet their governing system limited the direct democratic element to the election of representatives. Absent a democratic element, the rise of demagogues is an impossibility.

It is to our shame and perhaps demise that modern presidential elections resemble a TV reality show rather than the dignified and thoughtful process envisioned by our Framers. Instead of appointing men and women likely to appeal to the nation’s highest and noblest aspirations, our system increasingly encourages the election of loathsome creatures of horrid character who promise to salve the base desires of those who put them in office.

My point isn’t to imply the banning of political parties or that presidential wannabees should somehow be prevented from seeking public office. The existing system is far too entrenched in our political psyche. My purpose is to show that today’s process isn’t the one expected by the Framers, and most importantly, its corruption demonstrates what happens when a nation loses sight of the purposes of its governing institutions.

  1. Berg-Andersson, Richard E.



[i] (Berg-Andersson)