As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Constitution Hall on Sept. 17, 1787, he heard a lady ask, “Well, Doctor, what have we got - a republic or a monarchy?” To which he replied: “A republic, madam - if you can keep it.”
Dr. Franklin called it a republic, not a democracy, creating an interwoven fabric of beauty and endurance based on the Constitution of the United States. It represented all the interests: the states and the people; nation and individuals; and executive, legislative and judicial powers.
The Founding Fathers, with a deep distrust of an elite, centralized government, created a system of “checks and balances,” including leaders dependent on the states for their existence. James Madison, in Federalist 45, stated:
“The state governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former. Without the intervention of the state legislatures, the president of the United States cannot be elected at all. They will … in most cases … determine it.”
Equally, the founders were deeply distrustful of the passions of self-interested and irrational people. Therefore, they crafted the 10th Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Notice: States are mentioned first (and twice), and then the people. Thats federalism. After all, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were themselves chosen by the states that ratified the Constitution.
The founders’ grim experience with both kings and mobs led them to create a Congress, with the House representing the people, and the Senate representing the states (U.S. senators were originally elected by the state legislatures.) In both cases, the people were the same, but senators represented all of the local interests: land, resources, commerce, long-term investment, growth, immigrants, history, fallen comrades, future children, culture, vision and much more. It was genius.
However, the reformers of the late 19th and 20th centuries had a narrower view - one that involved only people. The passing of the 17th Amendment (providing for direct election of senators) in 1913 severed the senators from the states, thereby beginning the unraveling of the 10th Amendment.
One institution, however, that remains solidly republican (small “r”) is the little-understood Electoral College. And abolishing or bending it in ways never envisioned in the Constitution is a dangerous move with consequences far more grave than the occasional election of a president who gets fewer popular votes than his opponent.
Forcing electors to the Electoral College to vote for whoever gets the most popular votes nationally (the “National Popular Vote” movement, or NPV) is fraught with peril. Its proponents do not understand the genius of our republic. Electors are chosen on a state-by-state basis, representing both states (one elector per U.S. senator) and people (one elector per congressional district). While this may give North Dakotas three electors a slight advantage out of proportion to its tiny population, California, with 56 electoral votes, probably isnt losing any sleep over the situation.
This ensures that one candidate for president wins a majority that balances the interests of both the people and the states.
Making the Electoral College simply a ratifier of the popular vote will destroy its purpose. Since only the popular vote will matter, 12 states can decide presidential elections. The rest of the 50 states will just watch.
It is the Electoral College - standing alone - that prevents us from becoming a European-style, popular-vote, multi-party country with weak, coalition governments. By their very definition, that tells the world that no one really won, creates uncertainty, and tempts the country’s enemies. If we were Germany, President Clinton (43 percent vote) would have had to take Republicans and/or small parties into a weak, do-nothing coalition. Instead, he won a majority in the Electoral College.
In something so fundamental as the Constitution, unintended consequences are dangerous, even deadly. Bypassing the process to amend the Constitution as the NPV would - thumbing ones nose at the Constitution itself - is arrogant, shortsighted and foolish. And, the absolutely inevitable court cases - because NPV violates the constitutional amendment process - will never end, throwing into question the legitimacy of every election while the dispute travels through multiple courts multiple times over multiple years.
Destroy the Electoral College and we destroy one of the most solidly unifying symbols of the nation, and we continue the march toward concentration of power in the hands of a few states at the expense of the many.
• Larry L. Eastland is a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a member of the board of the American Conservative Union.