“Hamilton Electors” and the Erosion of Electoral Legitimacy

Earlier this week, news outlets brought attention to the so-called “Hamilton Electors,” a last-ditch effort to prevent a Donald Trump Presidency by convincing members of the Electoral College, an 18th-century quirk of the American election system, to override the results of November’s election and install a “responsible Republican alternative” in Trump’s place.

This, on its face, is a monumentally dangerous idea. It is a coup with a veneer of Constitutionality. It would adhere to the letter of the law; it could shatter its spirit beyond repair.

The Hamilton Electors claim that the electoral college is a safety feature, that the job of the electors is to reject an elected President who is unfit for the job. That was partially true, more than two centuries ago: the Senate and the Electoral college were conceived to protect the capital-holding class from the votes of the working class. As James Madison said of the Upper House in 1787:

“..our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

The Electoral College was instituted to reinforce the power of the landholding aristocracy, not as a measure to ensure a President-Elect’s moral fiber. It is an inherently reactionary institution, and any exercise of its power beyond the ceremonial would create an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

The Hamilton Elector proposal is not an isolated incident. It is yet another development in a decades-long trend of undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. Government and elections to select the leaders of that government.

What is electoral legitimacy? It is the confidence of the people that their collective wisdom has decided the course of the nation. It is an agreement that power should and will transition peacefully.

That legitimacy is breaking down.

There are five root causes of this decline:

  1. First-past-the-post voting
  2. The Electoral College
  3. Voter suppression
  4. Gerrymandering
  5. The abandonment of social democracy

Almost every election in the United States uses the first-past-the-post voting method: the recipient of the most votes, whether or not they have a majority, wins. It’s easy to understand, but punishes voting blocs that spread their votes among multiple options. This is called the “spoiler effect,” a slightly more formal name for what happens when the Democrats decide not to campaign in Wisconsin and then blame the eight people who voted for Jill Stein when they lose.

First-past-the-post forces voters to pick their choices strategically, abandoning a candidate they may genuinely support in favor of a “lesser evil” with a realistic chance of winning. When people claim “the system is rigged,” this is what they mean. First-past-the-post is the most effective mechanism ever devised for cultivating voter apathy. Almost any other voting system — proportional voting, ranked choice voting, or the single transferable vote — would be preferable.

The Electoral College — a system where voters choose a Presidential ticket on the ballot, but are in reality voting for a largely anonymous set of 538 party insiders whose votes actually count — is another fundamentally undemocratic institution. The Electoral College, like the Senate, places extra power in the hands of those who already hold too much — states that are whiter, more rural, more conservative, and unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. It undermines the sacrosanct democratic principle of “one person, one vote.”

Between 1896 and 1988, the system functioned in a predictable pattern: A Democrat went up against a Republican, and whoever won a majority of popular votes won enough electoral votes to become President. There were exceptions that caused or threatened to cause spoilers — Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign in 1912, Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrats— but they were deviations from the norm and the electoral system reflected the will of the people.

All the while, constitutional amendments and legislation expanded and protected the franchise of women, Native Americans, African Americans, speakers of minority languages, residents of Washington, D.C., and adults over 18 years of age.

A democracy that tries to expand its social programs to protect the vulnerable, includes more people in the voting process and defends their rights to participate — that democracy can handle the occasional George-Wallace-sized inconsistency. But we no longer have that democracy.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, both parties have stripped away the safety net of the welfare state and fought viciously against the mildest of progressive reforms. Republican-controlled legislatures have rolled out creative and pernicious laws designed to make it more difficult and inconvenient for many voters — who are most often black — to take part in the process. In 2013, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the protections of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Republican lawmakers gleefully seized upon the opportunity to enact a bevy of punitive voter suppression laws aimed at poor black voters and gerrymander their votes into irrelevance.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of the borders of electoral districts to minimize the influence of opposing voters and produce artificial, undemocratic outcomes. Both sides had long participated in the practice, but Republicans took it up almost religiously in 2010. In the aftermath of their midterm election victories that year, and aided by the Citizens United decision, the GOP caught the Democratic leadership unaware, carved out unassailable districts for themselves, and blunted the power of Democrats in both the House of Representatives and in state legislatures. They gamed the map so thoroughly that when the Democrats won 1.4 million more Congressional votes in 2012, the Republicans maintained a 33-seat majority. The Republicans now hold 25 state government “trifectas” — control of both legislative houses and the governorship. The Democrats have six.

Meanwhile, in the seven most recent Presidential elections — those within memory of the “millennial” generation — only three have been won by a candidate claiming popular majority. Twice —in 40 percent of the elections since the turn of the century — a Republican has captured the White House with a minority of votes.

But beyond any single structural issue stand the morally indefensible and electorally negligent policies of neoliberalism. Since the Reagan Revolution, the Democratic Party has eschewed many of its core principles. It has been complicit or the outright leader in the end of welfare, the curtailing of labor rights and the decline of unions, the expansion of the mass carceral state, the Defense of Marriage Act, the surveillance state, and unabated military intervention.

Instead, the Democratic Party has aggressively chased the banal respectability of the Overton Window, worshiping power and capital and technocracy and courting “moderate” Republicans. It has shown itself willing to compromise on its ostensible values before debate has begun.

Even the trademark progressive reform of the past thirty years, the Affordable Care Act, is a byzantine mess of good intentions. It is worthy enough that the left must defend its accomplishments. It is also confusing and halfhearted, mandating a right to healthcare through complicated and fragile market mechanisms. It seems almost designed to erode faith in government. When the Republicans cried that government was too big, too burdensome, and woefully inefficient, the Democrats gave them a perfect example.

The Hamilton Electors probably won’t succeed. But if this decline in legitimacy continues, it is only a matter of time until someone does.