Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Restraining by Expanding

Jill Lepore at The New Yorker (ht):

And these men didn’t elect George Washington; they voted only for delegates to the Electoral College, an institution established to further restrain the popular will.

This seems to be the unkillable myth about the Electoral College, the one at the base of most of the unfounded complaints against it. (There are, of course, reasonably founded complaints against it, as against every system of election. You just don't hear about them much because the unfounded ones involve fewer dull details.) The Electoral College wasn't designed to "restrain the popular will"; it was explicitly designed to guarantee that the popular will had some say in the choice of the President, and to guarantee that that say was as reasonably clear and stable as could be hoped. There was, of course, a strong interest at the time in making sure that the President of the United States was chosen by the States; the Electoral College manages to do this while minimizing State-level abuses. But this wasn't a restraining of the popular will; it was a cautious expansion of it into new territory. Lepore tries to spin this in the opposite direction by saying that it was an "illbegotten compromise"; why it was illbegotten is never said, but it certainly was a compromise, as most things in the Constitution had to be. The compromise didn't, however, restrain anything; prior to the Constitution, there was nothing to restrain. It's like saying that if, after a period where the Senate didn't exist, the people were suddenly allowed to elect a Senator, this "restrains the popular will" because it doesn't allow you yourself to vote on every bill that comes up. There is no real meaning to the word 'restrain' here. One could, perhaps, call it a restrained expansion of the influence of popular will. But 'restrained expension of the power of popular will' and 'restrained popular will' are very different things.

But the article does a good job of laying out the often-overlooked Australian innovation to the ballot system, standardized ballots, and the advantages and disadvantages it introduced.

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