Toward Communitarian Presidential Elections

Perhaps Donald Trump will seek to retain the presidency by contesting the results of the November election, but the more direct and obvious means toward that end is to once again prevail in the state-centric Electoral College. To do that, he need only undermine democratic processes and norms in a few closely contested states. 

Recent research by the eminent historian Alexander Keyssar confirms that the framers of the Constitution devised the Electoral College to give Southern states disproportionate power in the selection of presidents, thereby enticing them to join the Union by securing their slave-based economies and societies. Even after slavery was abolished, the College has facilitated the suppression of voting rights of minorities not only in the South but in “toss up” states where structural racism exists (which we increasingly recognize as being everywhere). Restrictive voter registration and identification requirements, withholding voting rights of former felons, and limiting vote by mail are current examples of how state officials can reduce minority voting rights while denying racist motivations for doing so. If the President and his supporters succeed in reducing minority voting influence in just a handful of states, the outcome in the Electoral College could tip toward Trump.

Giving states major roles in presidential elections including the capacity to curtail minority voting rights is a misapplication of federal principles. The president is the only American leader whose singular exercise of governmental authority impacts each and every citizen. Presidents should therefore be equally accountable to all voters, whatever their race and place of residence.

 To reform this blemish on American democracy, reformers have long called for a constitutional amendment to elect the president by using a national popular-plurality election.  More recently, reformers have sought to create an Interstate Compact that achieves a de facto national popular-plurality presidential election while avoiding the need for a Constitutional amendment. Either of these popular-plurality systems is likely to have the unintended consequence of encouraging a wide array of presidential candidates who appeal to various narrow interests and identities, voters dispersing their votes widely, and the election of a president having a very small base. The vast majority of citizens could regard the resulting governing regime as unrepresentative, untrustworthy, and illegitimate.

To eliminate the ills of the Electoral College and popular-plurality alternatives, we need a constitutional amendment that nationalizes all aspects of presidential elections including provisions enabling everyone to vote by mail or by the Internet and to have other uniform voting requirements. It should replace the state-centric primaries with a preliminary national election using approval ballots to identify those aspirants trusted by most citizens. It should remove the Electoral College of its archaic role in the general election and give citizens everywhere equal opportunities to rank-order the most trusted candidates, thereby ensuring that the president is not only widely supported but also has values closely aligned with those of most Americans.

The ballots currently used in both primary and general elections require citizens to vote for a single candidate, prompting us to think in terms of which candidate best represents our particular interests, principles, and/or identities. But under the proposed amendment, voters would soon ask themselves whom among these various candidates do we as a community of citizens trust because of their experiences and qualifications?  Under this reform, citizens and politicians could stop thinking about politics as our most brutal national sport in which there are only winners and losers and begin to see politics as community-wide endeavor aimed at having qualified and trusted leaders in the presidency, people who would focus on solving our collective problems instead of pursuing their personal interests and appeasing their narrow partisan bases.

The current Electoral College rules and ballots give us little choice other than to vote for either Trump or Biden, but we can still base our votes on which candidate is well qualified, widely trusted, and oriented toward the values sought by most citizens.