Does the Electoral College Serve the Democratic Process?

“It’s got to go,” asserted Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, when speaking of the electoral college in 2019 – reflecting a growing opposition to the constitutional process, which has been only heightened by the chaotic events of the past weeks. Rather than simply reiterating the same, prosaic arguments for the institution’s removal – the potential subversion the popular vote, the overwhelming significance of battleground states, the futility of voting for a third party, and so forth – this piece will consider the historical mentalities with which the electoral college was created in an effort to convey the ludicrous obsolescence of the institution in a twenty-first century democracy.  

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris preparing to deliver remarks about the U.S. economy in Delaware, 16 November 2020. (Credit: CNN)

In its essence, the system of electors stems from the patrician belief that the population lacked the intellectual capacity necessary for participation in a popular vote – Elbridge Gerry informing the Constitutional Convention, “the people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.” Over the past two hundred years, the United States has moved away from the early modern principles encouraging indirect systems of voting: for instance, the fourteenth amendment normalised the direct election of senators in 1913. It has also seen the electors themselves transition from the noble statesmen of the Framers’ vision, to the staunch party loyalists that they so greatly feared. In fact, the very institutions of modern political parties had no place in the Framers’ original conception, with Alexander Hamilton articulating a customary opposition to the, “tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.” This optimistic visualisation of a factionless union soon proved incompatible with the realities of electioneering and required the introduction of the twelfth amendment in 1803, a response to the factious elections of 1796 and 1800. Yet, while early pragmatism was exercised over the issue of the presidential ticket, the electoral college remains entirely unreformed at a time when two behemothic parties spend billions of dollars to manipulate its outcome in each presidential election cycle. 

The Constitutional Convention was, in part, characterised by a need for compromise and it is these compromises, rooted in the specific political concerns of 1787, that continue to shape the system for electing the nation’s president. With the struggle between the smaller and larger states causing, in the words of James Madison, “more embarrassment, and a greater alarm for the issue of the Convention than all the rest put together,” the electoral college presented a means of placating the smaller states by increasing their proportional influence in presidential elections. While it may have been necessary to appease the smaller states in 1787, the since unmodified system still ensures voters in states with smaller populations and lower turnout rates, such as Oklahoma, hold greater electoral influence than those in states with larger populations and higher rates of turnout, such as Florida. Yet, it was the need for compromise over a more contentious issue – the future of American slavery – that compelled the introduction of the electoral college further still. Madison recognised that “suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States” and that “the substitution of electors obviated this difficulty.” The indirect system of election, combined with a clause that counted three of every five slaves towards the state population, thus granted the slaveholding section of the new republic much greater representation in the election of the president than an alternative, popular vote would have permitted. At a time when the United States’ relationship with its slaveholding past has become the subject of sustained revaluation, its means of electing the executive remains steeped in the legacy of American slavery.

It takes only a brief examination, such as this, to reveal the stark contrasts between the historical mentalities with which the electoral college was established and the realities of a modern, democratic state. Further attempts to reform the institution will no doubt continue to come and go, as they have over the past two hundred years. However, when compared with the environment in which it was proposed, it is clear that the unreformed electoral college is no longer fit for purpose and must, eventually, give way to a system in which the president is elected by a popular vote.

Ed Warren

Debates Take On a Different Meaning in the “Worst Year Ever”

The Trump-Biden debates are wrapped up, and for the “Worst Year Ever” they didn’t disappoint. The first debate was widely condemned as the “Worst Debate Ever”. Both candidates talked over each other, and it was near-impossible to understand them. Biden faced calls to boycott the other debates. Trump made this decision for him, falling ill with COVID-19.

President Donal Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden take the stage in their final debate of the election campaign, Nashville, Tennessee. (Credit: Reuters)

Anyone who saw even brief highlights of the first debate could be forgiven for giving up on the whole institution of debates. But this would be extremely unwise. Yes, Trump interrupted Joe Biden a staggering 128 times. And admittedly, Joe Biden did reply by telling him to “shut up” and calling him a “clown”. Yet this wasn’t the breakdown of the debate as an institution. Rather, it was an additional insight into who the two candidates are, and how they will act in the face of the adversity that Presidents experience on a daily basis.

The problem with the way we view debates is that we anticipate 90 minutes of detailed and virtuous policy discussion. There is no clearer example of this fantasy than the West Wing episode, in which the two candidates running for president have a high-minded and theoretical exchange of views on what it means to stand as a Republican or a Democrat. In reality, presidential debates have little to do with policy. Most voters are unswayed by the arguments of the candidates; they may have little trust in them, or have made up their minds previously. The one area where debates really count is character.

The focus on character may be why the UK has lacked similar style pre-election debates, and why attempts here have enjoyed less success. The presidency is a position uniquely judged by the character of its occupant, and in the build-up to 2020 President Trump’s character – depending on who you ask – has been viewed as his biggest strength or weakness. This really gets to the crux of what debates are, and what they have always been – a blank slate.

The debate is one of the few foreseeable major events in a campaign. But that is all that can be foreseen: the event. Most voters are aware of it, and around 80 million will watch it, but the candidates are under no obligation to make it a debate on the state of America. Like most other political realities, the in-depth policy debate was an unwritten rule, held up by the ‘honour system’, and President Trump lacks this honour.

Using debates for non-policy advantages is as old as the institution itself. In the first ever presidential debate in 1960, Nixon faced off against Kennedy. Nixon turned up looking sickly and sweaty, whilst JFK was the epitome of suave New England style. Accordingly, whilst radio listeners thought Nixon had performed better, TV viewers agreed that Kennedy had won the debate. The echoes of 1960 were clear in Mr Trump’s first performance, in which he waved his hands, stood firm, interrupted, and generally tried to give the impression that he was in control of the events of the stage. Yet Mr Biden was not immune from these gimmicks either – he would flash a smile whenever the president made an outrageous claim, as if to say, “look at this clown – does he have what it takes to fill the office?”

Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in their final presidential debate; 21 October, 1960. (Credit: AP Photo)

The pressure of these debates is intense. Each given candidate will have three or four separate strategies they’re trying to pursue, and they have to juggle all of them whilst simultaneously readjusting their approach depending on which hits are landing. In the first debate, Mr Trump was balancing trying to present Joe Biden as senile, racist, and yet also a radical socialist. The president struggled with these conflicting narratives, especially as he hoped that constantly interrupting Mr Biden would force the former vice president into a memorable gaffe. Ultimately, it was Mr Trump’s inability to change his approach in the debate that cost him more than any of his policy errors, and formed the main narrative of the debate in its aftermath.

But there was ultimately something more sinister going on. Donald Trump’s biggest election worry is high turnout – Republicans usually vote reliably, but Democrats are much more vote-shy. This is doubly true of young people. Accordingly, the president may have been playing a deeper game during the first debate, one which he executed outstandingly. President Trump saw an opportunity to portray the debate as an irrelevant contest between two old white men – not dissimilar to how young Americans view the election already. Mr Trump’s constant interruptions made the debate unbearable to watch, but he ultimately wanted that. He may not have done well with the few undecided voters left in the campaign. He will care little. The bigger constituency was voters undecided between voting for Biden or staying home. The first debate looked exactly like two old men bickering, and for Trump that’s as close to a debate win as he can get.

Seth Weisz

Debate: Monarchy, a Relic or Required?

Monarchy and its Political Pomp and Circumstance

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 implemented the constitutional monarchy of the UK that we know today, effectively limiting the political role of the Crown to mere pomp and circumstance. Yet, to this day, certain superfluous political liberties have remained. In practice, the sovereign still gives weekly counsel to the Prime Minister. In practice, the sovereign opens Parliament with their speech, albeit drafted by the Commons. In practice, the sovereign must approve all legislation before it can become an act of parliament, although the last bill to be refused in such a manner was vetoed in 1708. While the British political constitution has moved on considerably from its absolute-monarchical days, the monarch’s political role still retains an archaic air, where substance falls short of ceremony. The lack of majority dissent over this archaism can only be explained by the increasing celebrity of the monarchy, caused by the tabloid-frenzied consumption of their every move, from wedding dress to baby name. This infatuation with these winners of a ‘genetic lottery’ completely overlooks the fact that these political liberties are available to be used and abused. Even if they choose not to do so, that is irrelevant to the fact they still exist.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, as, ceremonial politics aside, the monarchy can also be utilised by the party in power when wanting to inspire confidence in their abilities. This was evident in the Queen’s recent coronavirus address where she spoke of the need for solidarity, harking back to the Second World War idea of ‘everyone doing their bit’ and quoting Vera Lynn’s song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’. For a more worrying influence we must look back only to August of last year where Boris Johnson used the Queen’s ability to prorogue parliament to prevent lawmakers from thwarting his Brexit plans. Though the Crown officially adopts an air of impartiality towards partisan politics, it seems the monarchy is still a political tool to be manipulated on a whim. Surely the best way to ensure sovereign impartiality is to remain aloof from the political world. But surely while this demands reform, the monarchy need not be abolished to take its fingers out from the political pie.

When also considering the royal finances, it seems there is certainly no harm in taking this next step either. With £82.2 million paid by taxpayers in 2019 to form the Sovereign Grant – not including security or ceremonial costs – is it really necessary to keep funding this archaic institution? Popular responses say yes, pointing to tourism revenues of £550 million, and ambassador-generated trade of £150 million. Yet the latter number barely makes a dent in the sum of UK exports (£543 billion), and as for tourism revenue, the abolition of the monarchy would not stop tourists from frequenting destinations such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The question we the public should be asking is are the monarchy still relevant? The royal family can still exist in celebrity status and tabloid sensationalism without pulling on the drawstrings of the public purse and without being used as a political tool. The political role of the monarchy should be a thing of the past, celebrated and remembered perhaps, but fit for the vault of history.

Melanie Perrin

The current British royal family on Buckingham Palace’s Balcony. (Credit: Chris Jackson, via Getty Images.)

A Defence of the Monarchy

A word that recalls the riches and privileges of fairy-tale princes and princesses, but one that also connotes the existential crisis faced by many kingdoms. The twentieth century saw a deadly trend for the end of monarchies: most famously, the tragic demise of the Romanovs. However, new monarchies were forged that have remained to this day, such as Bhutan’s Wangchucks, whose popularity in Thailand has even led to a sharp increase in Thai tourism to Bhutan.

Monarchies carry more influence than is recognised in modern society. In Britain, the House of Windsor encourages support for charitable causes. Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has been outspoken about the importance of mental health services, describing his participation in counselling and advocating open discussion concerning mental health. Alongside the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry founded ‘Heads Together’; a campaign created to increase the visibility of mental health conditions. Using their royal status greatly, the Cambridges and Sussexes promoted ‘Heads Together’ through royal visits, social media presence and tailored events. It was highly successful, with the foundation announcing it had assisted “millions” in talking more about mental health. The British monarchy is still deeply entrenched within our society and culture, engaging with topical issues, and promoting causes that they believe in. The Windsors have become more personal than rulers of the past, and still engage with politics, albeit in different ways. Commentary on social issues is another valid way of engaging with the political constitution. 

Neutrality is the most important characteristic of today’s monarchy, with the royal veto having been abandoned for over 300 years. The monarch is now idealised to be a leader that the public can stand behind, regardless of the political climate. Prime Ministers cannot command the support nor the majority, which the monarchy can. According to YouGov in 2018, 69% of people support the monarchy, with 21% opposing and 11% stating no preference. No Prime Minister has ever achieved such a high public majority. Theresa May was the second most popular Conservative leader ever, and still only commanded a positive opinion of 30%. In a turbulent modern society, the British monarchy has been a source of constancy.  

In a politically chaotic decade, Britain has seen three Prime Ministers in three years under Conservative Party leadership, which has been deeply divisive. However, the popularity of the monarchy has been proven time and time again. For the wedding of the Cambridges, there were 60 million viewers (averaging at 22 million for whole coverage), and sales of the royal issue of the Hello! magazine rose by 25%. Globally, there were 29 million viewers of the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. Furthermore, the British monarchy unites 2.4 billion under the Commonwealth, from across five continents. 

The grasp upon the monarchy has not been relinquished by the world, but especially not by British society. It has been steadfast for centuries and whether it is universally accepted, monarchy occupies a key part of politics, culture and society in modern Britain. It does not seem as if the world is ready for the monarchy to be a historic concept.

Lorna Cosgrave