Some Thoughts on Omens

In ancient times, an eclipse was often seen as a divine event, heralding the displeasure of the Gods. Kings and emperors who justified their rule on divine right would fall, the eclipse or a natural disaster warning that the Gods had revoked their right to rule. Within the course of a week, we recently had both an eclipse and a flood, enough to cause any ruler to panic, and now another hurricane. While the science of storms and eclipses is now very well understood and no longer dressed in myth, the question of a ruler’s legitimacy is quite timely.

Donald Trump was legally elected President, but strict legality alone does not make him legitimate. The legal mechanism itself might not be considered democratically legitimate — especially when they enable a result where the person with three million fewer votes wins. The Electoral College was built to serve several functions, many of them things no modern democracy would consider legitimate: It violates the principle of one person, one vote, it allows elites to reject the will of the people, and it was built to help protect slavery. The other two elements are well known and well discussed, but that last element deserves more attention and some explanation.

Due to the Connecticut Compromise, the Constitution provides a balance of power between large and small states in the Congress — small states wielding disproportionate power in the Senate, etc. You’ve heard that part. But how size was determined was an important question as well — and here, we come to the commonly misunderstood 3/5 clause. After a long debate, it was determined that the population of states for the purpose of representation would be determined by the number of free persons, plus 3/5ths of all others — that is, slaves. The antislavery position was not, as commonly assumed, to count slaves as a full person. That would have given slave states more seats in the House of Representatives, and increased the power of slaveowners as, of course, slaves would not have any vote for the people who would represent them. It benefited slaveowners to have slaves counted as full people, and benefited antislavery advocates to not have them counted at all. With the compromise, a precise balance of power between slave states and free states was created in the Congress. But how then, would that balance of power be preserved when electing one person rather than dozens, while still having that person accountable to the people rather than to other politicians? This is where the Electoral College was born — each state and its population had a vote in exact proportion to its power in Congress. The deliberately negotiated agreements that gave slaveholders extra power in Congress would be reflected in the Presidency as well.

This structure worked to other ends as well — it allowed states that wished to restrict voting much more strictly than other states without losing their influence. Even if a state like Massachusetts was allowing all free men to vote, a state like Virginia could choose to only allow white men who owned at least 10 acres of land to vote. South Carolina could refuse to allow its citizens to vote for the President at all, only State Legislators had that privilege. And to make sure the people couldn’t get too crazy, electors would be free to reject the wishes of the voters and to substitute their own judgment.

All of these are deeply antidemocratic purposes. In discussion of the Electoral College, you frequently hear about how the Electoral College protects “regional balance”. And there is some legitimacy to giving regions or other constituencies the power to protect the interests dearest to them. But the Electoral College does not give power to every regional interest equally — it penalizes urban interests and rewards rural ones, but that is incidental, not designed. The Electoral College was designed to protect one regional interest in particular, that of slavery. It was created to serve as a tool of white supremacy, and continues to give the most racist areas of our country disproportionate power today.

It is perhaps Donald Trump’s greatest fear that he will be viewed as illegitimate, hence his desperate need to brag about the size of his inauguration crowd, and his handing out maps of his ‘huge’ Electoral College victory to every visitor to the White House. But even beyond its violation of the principle of one person, one vote, the Electoral College is a deeply illegitimate institution. Deep down, President Trump seems to know this. We should all take note.

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