As a political moderate, I was reconciling myself to the election results by recalling that this was the democratic process. Then I remembered that the candidate who would become president in 2017 lost to his opponent by more than 630,000 votes: a number equal to the population of Baltimore, Maryland. By winning the popular vote, but failing to be elected, Hillary Clinton joined Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland and Albert Gore as the people’s choice for president defeated by the Electoral College.
In two of the past five presidential elections the Electoral College has elected persons who decidedly lost the popular vote. Why should the standards of 1789, which recognized only white male “freeholders” as eligible to vote, dictate how we elect presidents in 2016?
With the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, men of all races were given the right to vote. With the 19th Amendment women of all races were given the right to vote. With the 24th Amendment poll taxes and other mechanisms used to discourage voting by certain classes of citizens were prohibited. With the 26th Amendment the voting age was lowered to 18 to match the age at which citizens were allowed to die for their country. Yet our democracy remains burdened with the Electoral College which effectively disenfranchised the 60,981,000 people who voted for Clinton in 2016, and the 51,000,000 people who voted for Gore in 2000.
The fact that our president and vice-president are elected by the Electoral College, not the citizens of the United States, means that all votes cast for a candidate who fails to gain a majority in any given state are disregarded entirely in selection of the president. The same goes for all votes for a candidate in excess of the number of votes needed to win a majority in any given state.
The Electoral College is a decidedly undemocratic institution. At this point, the only offset to what will happen on Dec. 19 (the date that the Electoral College votes) is another undemocratic institution: the “filibuster.” The filibuster is the right of any U.S. senator or group of senators to talk for as long as they want about anything they want in order to block action by the Senate. The undemocratic aspect of the filibuster is that it takes a vote of three-fifths of the members of the Senate to stop a filibuster (an action known as “cloture”). A three-fifths vote amounts to 60 votes in the current Senate.
While the right to filibuster has been restricted over the years, it remains available to block legislation and, most important, to block presidential nominees to the Supreme Court. Put another way, it still requires a “supermajority” of 60 senators to enact controversial legislation or to approve a Supreme Court nomination.
One would hope that being elevated to the office of president contrary to the votes of the majority of voters would instill a sense of humility and moderation. There is certainly no mandate for a dramatic change in many important policies that are widely espoused by the public, including protection of the rights of all citizens regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin; protecting a women’s rights to choose whether or not to have an abortion; and protection of the environment.
It may be that the only means of preserving these important rights will be the filibuster. When used to block the actions of an administration popularly elected to implement policies endorsed by the majority, use of the filibuster is a less than honorable political ploy. When used to block the actions of an administration not popularly elected and seeking to implement policies that have not been endorsed by the majority, proper use of the filibuster is an honorable political obligation.
In the coming four years, a responsible and judicious exercise of that undemocratic institution, the filibuster, might prevent elimination of important protections for minorities, women and the environment by a minority administration selected for office by that other undemocratic institution, the Electoral College.
Of course, we may still be left to the machinations of Vladimir Putin, but you can’t have everything!