Affirm checks and balances, keep the Electoral College

I, too, made a hasty mistake on the ballot this time, voting both yes and no on a proposition. But when the registrars ran it routinely through their machine, the error was caught, and I just redid that ballot page.

Such automatic and timely checks of each ballot will undoubtedly be ordained nationally by the time we go around again, along with some other technical changes coming out of our banana republic experience this year — and all will applaud. But we should be wary of wiping out the Electoral College. Already there is a movement afoot to do just that.

According to the gospel of Gallup, a large majority of Americans — probably including most Jews — would support that movement. It seems such a liberal and reasonable thing to do — just listen to the sound bites: "The will of the majority must prevail."

But it is just that majoritarian fallacy of which Jews should be especially wary, as were America's founding fathers. They were anxious to have checks and balances to hinder the will of the majority from always prevailing. That is why they gave us the Bill of Rights, to prevent any national or state majority from impinging on minority rights.

There is no need to idealize those founding fathers; there was many a clay foot among them. But their fear of either a monarchic or majoritarian tyranny was genuine, and is reflected in our operating political system. The Senate, for example, helps prevent different regional, economic and cultural interests from being drowned in the general will. The Electoral College serves the same purpose. In both cases, like the Bill of Rights, their check on the general helps define a real democracy.

But on a practical level, how can a president preside if he or she has not received a majority vote? As a matter of fact, it has been done at least 17 times, including Bill Clinton twice. Sometimes a close popular vote has helped to rein in a victor and allowed him to seek more bipartisan compromise, to the advantage of the country. John F. Kennedy admittedly adopted such a strategy, after winning the Electoral College vote in 1960 by a 303-219 margin, but the popular vote only by a margin of 49.7 to 49.5 percent.

Discussing the closeness of that popular vote, presidential historian Theodore H. White wrote that Kennedy's victory was "a tribute to the wisdom of the constitutional fathers who, in their foresight, invented the device of the Electoral College, which, while preserving free citizen choice, prevents it from degenerating into the violence that can accompany the narrow act of head-counting."

Of course, galloping partisanship always takes hold among the elites of both parties when there is a discrepancy, with lofty rhetoric supporting the legitimacy of either the popular vote or the electoral vote, depending on which favors the partisans' candidate. On that low ground, some might say that Jewish self-interest lies in getting rid of the Electoral College, since most Jews live in the larger states — and the Electoral College, like the Senate, helps protect the interests of those living in the smaller states. But that would be a myopic view of Jewish self-interest, which lies in the enduring check-and-balance strength of democracy, American style.

There are other, smaller practical reasons for clinging to the fundamentals of the Electoral College, although certain technical changes, such as preventing "faithless electors," can certainly be considered. A direct election would increase the mass-media nature of campaigns, with candidates concentrating their attention on a handful of large states — and the possibilities of corruption would be compounded.

On the practical level, it has been counter-proposed that the supremacy of the Electoral College corrodes the credibility of the election, since the premise of one person, one vote holds only within each state. But that is true only for those who do not fully understand the nature of a real democracy in a heterogeneous society. The debate about to be launched on this matter is indeed an educable moment for deepening that full understanding.

And Jews, out of their particular experience, should be leaders in pointing out that we should not be so quick to ditch the Electoral College.