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Schoolhouse Rocks and Hamilton Raps

November 1, 2016

 

The Constitution of the United States

Article II

Section I
 

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows

 

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

 

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President …

“As your body grows bigger, Your mind grows flowered, It’s great to learn, Because knowledge is power!”[1] The problem is, sometimes knowledge just confuses things. People are heading to the polls to vote early and more will show up at the polls on Election Day, Tuesday, November 8, 2016. My impression is that both sides feel this is a “make or break” election, so the dedicated are definitely voting. Well, like I said, knowledge is power, but once you know how our president is elected, you may not feel so powerful. You may just feel sad and confused.

 

This isn’t a position piece. I am not advocating for a particular action. Well I suppose I am in a way. I do want everyone to vote. I thought this would be a fun, enlightening little civics blurb, that might get people engaged and ready to “get out there and vote!” Sadly, as I try to explain our election process I find that the waters only grow murkier despite my best efforts to clarify. Regardless, I am going to try to make this fun, while I tie your brain in knots.

 

The United States is still relatively young in comparison to the great governments of history, and the nation has thrived largely because of a Constitution that is an amazing document as much for what it contains as for what it doesn’t. The Constitution is broad, and it is also often vague. Importantly though, our nation has thrived because its people buy into the Constitution.[2] The Nation and the Constitution rely on the premise of the people granting the government power to govern them. We the people grant authority to those we elect to make laws, and we enter into a pact, with the elected AND with each other, to abide by the decisions our government makes. Peacefully. There are avenues through which we can address our grievances: judicially, legislatively, and possibly most importantly electorally. Each registered voter has one vote. And we are told frequently that for our voice to be heard we have to exercise our right to vote. But how is our voice heard?

 

Let’s say, when Election Day rolls around, and you’re fired up. You head to the polling place to support your candidate. You run the gauntlet of volunteers who try to hand you brochures and sway you to vote for their candidate. You make it through the terribly long line to have your name checked off a list and get directed to a booth. You place that little magic voting card into the slot on the front of the booth, and finally you rock your vote for … a list of people whose names you have never heard? Sure, all the names you’re probably sick of hearing are there too, but who are these other folks? Despite the confusing ballot, your voice must be heard. You know this because you’ve been told this!

 

You cannot get confused and just throw your hands up in the air. Are you gonna give up your best shot to be heard? Let’s get motivated by Alexander Hamilton’s sweet, sweet rhymes: 

 

HAMILTON: And I am not throwing away my shot

I am not throwing away my shot

Hey yo, I’m just like my country

I’m young, scrappy and hungry

And I’m not throwing away my shot[3]

 

So you vote. 

 

Now remind me again why you just voted for a whole list of names you’ve never heard.  Oh!  That’s right, “we the people” aren’t actually the ones who elect the president … at least not entirely.  To paraphrase Article II, Section I of The Constitution of the United States, executive power over our country is held by the “President” for a four year term.  The President, along with the Vice President, will be elected by “Electors.”  Each state gets a certain number of Electors.  All of the states’ chosen Electors comprise what we have come to call the “Electoral College.” Who picks the Electors?  According to the Constitution, each state’s legislature gets to decide how its Electors are chosen.  You’ll note that, in my paraphrasing of the Constitution, I did not once say that “the people” elect the president, or that “the people” get to choose the Electors. 

 

Still, despite a lack of any mention of “the people” in that section of the Constitution, every four years we hold an election for president during which any citizen above the age of 18 – and in good standing, so to speak – may vote for the candidate of his or her choosing.  Do our votes matter? Is there some sort of Electoral Illuminati out there letting us believe that we are choosing our supreme executive, while, all the while, they are actually casting their votes as they choose?  All we need to make this election process seem more convoluted is a “Lady of the Lake” and a sword!

 

King Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: Well, I didn't vote for you.

King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.

Woman: Well how'd you become king then?

King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.

Dennis: Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.[4]

 

“Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses” indeed!  Except, you know, when it doesn’t.  Article II doesn’t even explicitly give the “masses” a vote!

 

Now wait just a second!  I do not mean to set off alarm bells!  I am not saying our votes don't matter.  All of the states in the union, including the state of Tennessee, have established that the selection of Electors is to be done by a vote of registered voters.[5]  However, as I said before, we are not actually voting for a presidential candidate.  We are voting for a slate of Electors who are then supposed to cast their vote for our preferred presidential candidate.[6]  See?  Isn’t that easy?  No?  Maybe our favorite Saturday-Morning musical cartoon educator can help?

Schoolhouse Rock

I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College

(in pertinent part):

 

The folks who wrote our Constitution

Had the idea for this plan,

And it's been used in our elections

Since our government began.

 

When you pull down on my levers for the person of your choice,

You're also choosing state electors, who will have the final voice.

They're called the electoral college, and they'll meet to stipulate

Who the voters have selected to be the winner in each state.

 

Now, the number of electors

That your state is going to get

Is based on total population

That's a formula that's set.

 

And when the popular vote is counted

To find a winner in each state,

Each state will pledge all of its electors

To choose the winning candidate!

Well that clears it all up.  Why haven't we been told more about this system? It seems pretty important after all.  Well, we don’t hear about the Electoral College all that often except for right around the time of the Presidential Election because the election of the President and Vice-President is the only time we use the Electoral College system.  During the presidential election season[7] you might hear the political pundits give a broad overview of the electoral system.  The overview generally focuses on how many electoral votes a presidential candidate must have to win the election, and how many Electors each state has.  When a presidential election is over, you will sometimes hear the call to change the rules governing the election of our president and demanding that the popular vote be used to determine the victor.

 

Of course the electoral system is part of the Constitution and as such changing the way our President is elected isn’t simply a matter of the citizenry demanding it, or a state legislature voting to change it, or even Congress passing a new law.  To change it we must amend the Constitution.[8]  As is the case with our nation’s other legislative decisions, a constitutional amendment is only indirectly initiated by the American people.  Our demand alone, no matter how adamant, will not get it done.[9] 

 

As your knowledge of the Electoral College grows does it continue to feel like your power is shrinking?  If your answer is yes then that must beg the question of why we have that system in place at all?  Alexander Hamilton, the founding father who is also the title character of the Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical[10] was present at the constitutional convention and signed the document, and his words[11] may describe best the reasoning behind the Electoral College:

 

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder … But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.[12]

 

Ok, to quote the inimitable Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.”  As most of you probably know already, the founding fathers basically wanted an intermediate level of men, who were smart, to select our president without succumbing to the evil spread of terrible lies and propaganda or to general skulduggery.  The masses vote.  The masses might be influenced by bad people.  The brilliant men appointed to the Electoral College, of course, would not be so influenced.  Just so I am clear, it appears the founding fathers really did simply want to diminish our power.  But maybe it only sounds like that because at this point I have, believe it or not, oversimplified the process!  I swear that I am not jaded at all.  Let me try to complicate things.

 

While our 50 states are not all exactly alike in their electoral process, they mostly follow a system similar to Tennessee’s, so I will use my own state as my example.  Each of Tennessee’s political parties nominates a separate slate of electors.[13]  These nominated electoral candidates “pledge” to vote for their party’s candidate if that candidate receives the most votes in Tennessee.  This “pledge” prevents a “faithless elector,” which is an elector who does not vote for his or her party’s candidate.[14]  When a presidential candidate receives the most votes in the state, all of the electoral nominees of that presidential candidate’s party are appointed as Electors.  Since a pledge alone isn’t sufficient to prevent an Elector from voting against his or her party’s candidate, some states including Tennessee have made it a law that the Electors have to vote for their party’s candidate.[15]  So, to be clear, Tennessee law states that if you vote for a candidate, and the candidate you vote for receives the most votes in Tennessee then the elector must vote for that candidate.[16]  Whoo! That was a close one!

 

But, back to that whole “jaded” thing I mentioned before.  The law as passed by Tennessee, and by many other states, while ostensibly protecting the sanctity of your individual vote, does not, strictly speaking, comply with Article II of the Constitution or with the founding fathers' apparent intent.  This is where my cynical side rears its head.  If any state that has passed one of these laws, actually has the need to enforce it, and actually tries to enforce it, an Elector may take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court then might actually declare all these great laws unconstitutional.  The Electoral College would then be able to make the decision for us, usurping our power.  The Electoral College is, after all, a college.  Maybe we're just an elementary school, and we don't know better.

 

While I find the founding fathers to have been intelligent and insightful, I also know that they were, mostly, a product of their time and were as vulnerable to the influence of the time’s prejudices as any man.  Many of the founding fathers were exalted as almost royalty in their time.  They were praised as brilliant.  If you tell a man he is brilliant enough times, he will believe you. He will also likely believe that you are not so brilliant as he. 

 

Our founding fathers wanted their fledgling democracy to work and didn’t want the ignorance or impressionability of the general population to be the country's downfall, so they, at least on paper, deliberately limited the effectiveness of the vote of the masses and entrusted the presidential election instead to a group of more “intelligent” Electors.  That may have made sense at the time, but now with our representative democracy well established, it seems like the bigger danger to the survival of our government might be the “masses” feeling like their vote doesn’t count.  

 

The honesty and straightforward nature of our candidates matters as much now as it did when our nation was founded, and pundits scramble every day to describe the unscrupulous nature of candidates and the inappropriate outside influence of any number of corporations and individuals.  If we are to believe these descriptions to be true do we need a protective barrier between the people and the lying liars telling all the lies?  Are we the people so easily duped?  What if we are?  People can certainly be influenced, but when is that influence bad?

 

Look at the song, The Election of 1800, from Hamilton.  It does a pretty good job of demonstrating the potential for an election taking place and reflecting the influence of one man, who is not even one of the candidates.  In this particular narrative the one man just happens to be our hero, Alexander Hamilton.[17]  The people are desperate to know who Alexander Hamilton will support in an election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.  Despite Hamilton’s political differences with Jefferson, he throws his support behind him, rather than Burr, because he doesn’t like Burr’s tendency toward supporting the view that is the most politically expedient. At least some of the people must have been swayed because Jefferson won.  Just check more of Hamilton’s sweet, sweet rhymes:

 

HAMILTON: The people are asking to hear my voice

ENSEMBLE: Oh!

HAMILTON: For the country is facing a difficult choice

ENSEMBLE: Oh!

HAMILTON: And if you were to ask me who I’d promote—

ENSEMBLE: Oh!

HAMILTON: —Jefferson has my vote

JEFFERSON/MADISON/ENSEMBLE: Oh!

HAMILTON: I have never agreed with Jefferson once

JEFFERSON/MADISON/ENSEMBLE: Oh!

HAMILTON: We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts

JEFFERSON/MADISON/ENSEMBLE: Oh!

HAMILTON: But when all is said and all is done

Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none[18]

 

Now, if Hamilton were a less principled man, seeking only to advance his own dastardly schemes, the Electoral College would be there to circumvent his influence over the people.[19]  And the system remains there today, presumably to serve the same purpose.  But the question is: how do our Electors know when circumvention is necessary and appropriate?  How do we define what amounts to a bad influence over the people’s election decisions?  Is it like obscenity?  You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. Are emails or locker-room talk bad enough that if one of our two current candidates gets elected, the Electors should step in and reverse the decision of the masses?  When can we say that there been sufficient undue influence of the people to justify the Electors not voting with the people. I do not have the answer, but I must conclude that we need that answer if we the people are going to continue to feel like we have even a modicum of power.  With that sort of answer, maybe knowledge could be power.

 

After all of this, why should you vote?  Well, the system may be imperfect, but the system has not yet substantially prevented the people’s voices from being heard.  There are only four instances when one presidential candidate received the national majority in the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote.[20] More importantly, as of today, no faithless elector has ever swung the result of an election.  I wonder if we haven’t changed the system simply because it’s a difficult chore to amend the Constitution, and to date the system has yet to fail us.  Also, despite feeling powerless, there is really no reason that you should not vote, right?  I mean sure, you can opt out in protest, but someone is still going to be elected.  Your vote matters because the popular vote in your state will determine the Electors that vote, and the Electors you select should vote along their party line.  What is the alternative way to be an agent of change?  Revolution?  Have fun with that.  If that isn’t enough to convince you – if you still are throwing your hands up in the air over the futility of it all – just “remember what the Monty Python boys say. ‘Always look on the bright side of life?’  No.  ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.’”[21]
 

 

[1] Schoolhouse Rock! Introduction Music, Created by David McCall in 1973

[2] Please imagine some patriotic song playing about right now.

[3] Lyrics from Hamilton, My Shot by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

[4] Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Copyright 1974 National Film Trustee Company Limited, Screenplay by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin.

[5] Tennessee Code Annotated § 2-15-101- At the regular November election immediately preceding the time fixed by the law of the United States for the choice of president and vice president, as many electors of president and vice president as this state may be entitled to shall be elected. Each registered voter in this state may vote for the whole number of electors. The persons, up to the number required to be chosen, having the highest number of votes shall be declared to be duly chosen electors.

[6]Tennessee is one of 48 states that sends the full slate of electors associated with the single candidate who garners the highest number of votes.  In other words, to the victor go all the spoils (all the electors).

[7] The presidential election season used to come around once every 4 years.  Now it seems like the “season” lasts 4 years.

[8] Article V describes how the Constitution is to be amended.  Both houses of Congress propose an amendment to the Constitution, and then that amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the states’ Legislatures.  Now, this isn’t like that other classic Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just a Bill.”  If two-thirds of both houses vote to propose a constitutional amendment and send it to the states for ratification, unlike a bill, the President does not have veto power over a proposed amendment.

A constitutional amendment can also be proposed by a Constitutional Convention if two-thirds of the states request one, but as of today, no amendment has ever been proposed by convention.
[9] That is not to say we don’t have a voice.  The United States is a republic, or a representative democracy, so we exercise our voice by each of us voting to elect those people who we feel will represent our own firmly held convictions in the legislative branch and in the executive branch of our government.  If we wish to see the constitution changed, we have to elect those that would see to it that it is done. 

[10] Hamilton: An American Musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda – Music, Lyrics and Book (Original Off-Broadway Opening Night – February 17, 2015; Broadway Opening Night – August 6, 2016).

[11] I am talking Alexander Hamilton’s actual written words, not the rapped lyrics of the musical.

[12] The Federalist Papers, No. 68

[13] Tennessee has 11 electoral votes.  One vote for each representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and one vote for each of the U.S. Senators.  So each party nominates 11 electoral candidates.

[14] Technically, according to the Constitution, an Elector can vote for whoever he or she believes is the best candidate.  Not to be cynical, but, by itself, a “pledge” from an electoral candidate doesn’t soothe my concerns about ending up with a “faithless elector.”

[15] Tennessee Code Annotated §2-15-104(c)(1) - The electors shall cast their ballots in the electoral college for the candidates of the political party which nominated them as electors if both candidates are alive.

[16] Feeling a little better about that whole “pledge” thing now?

[17] This analysis might be a stretch, but let’s face it, I want to bring something culturally relevant into this article, while avoiding anything too terribly culturally divisive, and Hamilton seems pretty popular, so for the sake of my art, I will make the stretch.

[18] Lyrics from Hamilton, The Election of 1800 by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

[19] As it turns out, the Electoral College did not subvert the will of the people, and Jefferson won in a landslide … at least according to the musical he did.

[20] 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 elections

[21] Sliding Doors directed and written by Peter Howitt, A Miramax Production,1998.

 

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