The Corner

Massachusetts, the Electoral College, and the Lessons of History

Massachusetts is one gubernatorial signature away from thumbing its nose at the Electoral College — to say nothing of Article V of the Constitution. Its state Senate has joined the House in giving final approval to the ill-advised National Popular Vote plan. The measure is now headed to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk. The governor’s spokeswoman today noted Patrick’s support for the measure, so it is probable that he will soon sign NPV into law.

NPV commits Massachusetts to an interstate compact, which goes into effect once states holding 270 electors (a majority) have agreed to sign it. Under the terms of the compact, participating states must allocate their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote (instead of each state’s popular vote). If this compact goes into effect, the Electoral College will exist in theory, but not in practice. Patrick’s signature will make Massachusetts the sixth state to approve the compact. The first five were Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington. New York and the District of Columbia could also soon jump on this bandwagon.

The Massachusetts legislature has forgotten (or never knew) the lessons of history that caused the founding generation to create institutions such as the Electoral College. The Founders had an interesting challenge in front of them: How could they encourage successful self-governance in a country as big and diverse as America? They faced two challenges: First, they knew that, as a matter of history, pure democracies fail. John Adams once noted, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” In such a system, it is simply too easy for bare or emotional majorities to tyrannize minority groups. The Founders’ second challenge came from the vastness of America’s territory: Some wondered how the alternative to democracy, republicanism, would operate in such a large nation.

The Founders solved their dilemma by drafting a Constitution that blended three different governmental principles: republicanism, democracy, and federalism. America would be self-governing, but minority groups (especially the small states) would have tools with which to protect themselves from unreasonable rule by the majority. The federalist aspects of the nation would help solve the problem of extending a republic across such a broad swath of territory.

The founding generation thought that a nation of thirteen states was big and would require unique solutions. What would they think about a nation of fifty states?

America is a large and wonderfully diverse nation. We need a special presidential election process if we are to find presidents who can successfully represent so many different kinds of people simultaneously. The Electoral College has been wildly successful at identifying these candidates for more than two centuries.

Massachusetts legislators should have spent more time studying the history of and justifications for this aspect of our Constitution before voting to tear it asunder.

Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.

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