“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Ben Franklin’s famous line resonates today. With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, there have been cries to eliminate the Electoral College. Meanwhile, here in Maine, Gov. LePage has renewed calls to amend the initiative process to require representation from all 16 counties.
While each proposal is different, they both reflect the same underlying tension: should simple majorities rule? Or should other considerations be respected?
Our American system, as designed by the Framers, recognized there was more at play than simple math. Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States” formed the basis for our fledgling nation. After the Revolution, each state took for itself the powers of old King George, trifurcating them into three distinct branches. The states then came together in a confederation.
But that didn’t work. So we had a constitutional convention, and various ideas were put forward. Alexander Hamilton — yes, that guy they made a musical about — and others wanted to effectively abolish states and create an American super-parliament. The large states, led by Virginia, wanted a national government with power allocated according to population. Sound familiar? And the small states wanted to continue the principle of “one state, one vote” — call it states’ rights.
So what happened? They compromised. Some of it was driven by slavery, like the infamous three-fifths clause. But most of the compromises reflected the reality that the states were sovereign, giving rise to a federalist system and a national government of limited, enumerated powers.
And while Maine — after we freed ourselves from the tyranny of Massachusetts — was sovereign in its own right, our culture was part and parcel of the New England tradition. “Local control” is more than a slogan; it is lived in town meetings and grange halls.
That is why, whether we are talking about presidential elections or referendum questions, there is more than math at stake.
When it comes to the Electoral College, a voter in Maine has roughly double the power of one in New York or Texas. But Maine voters are even more mighty when it comes to the Senate; if the Electoral College is a scourge, wouldn’t the same argument apply to the election of senators? Every six years it takes 30 Californians to equal 1 Mainer. That’s not very democratic.
Yet there are no loud calls to abolish the Senate, which makes the outcry against the Electoral College somewhat disingenuous. After all, the president is both representative of the people and the states. And the Electoral College balances these two sources of power, with the magic number of “538” a function of both population and state sovereignty.
That isn’t to say the allotment of votes cannot improved. As we saw last week, Maine split its electoral votes by congressional district. Other states could adopt that method, following our lead. Or maybe states could allocate electoral votes proportionally to their popular vote, giving more meaning to the vote of a Democrat in Alaska or a Massachusetts Republican. Those are conversations worth having.
Meanwhile, back at home, ballot questions shouldn’t be dictated by Lewiston and Portland. It is too easy for interest groups — whether they are government employee unions, Washington D.C.-based advocacy organizations, or rich people from Florida — to pay signature gatherers to stand in our urban centers promising puppies and unicorns.
They get enough support to push the matter to the ballot, then spend millions upon millions to air commercials with questionable accuracy to get the item passed. Asking these groups to collect some number of signatures from all 16 counties isn’t a bridge too far.
Whether it is the U.S. Senate or the Electoral College, the unique nature of America’s sovereign states should be respected. And when it comes to passing referendum questions in Maine, if we can’t force the ultimate tally to be more geographically representative, we can at least require some level of support throughout the state to ask the question in the first place.
The American experiment is more than a simple democracy and a game of numbers. It is a Republic, but only as long as we keep it so. From the Founders, to the Framers, to today, it remains such; and hopefully it will for many generations hence.