Dr. Adam Carrington, assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College’s Graduate School of Statesmanship, unpacks the recent trend of states passing legislation to do away with the Electoral College, and the repercussions of state lawmakers, as well as presidential candidates, desiring to break from tradition. Carrington also addresses other proposed changes to our Constitution, including altering both the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices and the amount of time lawmakers can debate about judicial nominees.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you for joining us today for Family Policy Matters. I’m Traci DeVette Griggs, Director of Communications here at NC family, sitting in today for John Rustin. It seems fewer and fewer Americans understand and appreciate our very unique system of government. America’s Founding Fathers designed very specific guideposts for that system and protected them by placing them in the U.S. Constitution. But there appears to be a growing ignorance about that design, even among our political leaders and some presidential candidates. Dr. Adam Carrington is here to talk to us about this today. He is an assistant professor of Politics at Hillsdale College Graduate School of Statesmanship. Dr. Carrington, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
ADAM CARRINGTON: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s start with a topic that seems to be popping up a lot lately. There is somewhat of a groundswell among some to do away with the Electoral College. Before we discuss whether or not that’s a good thing, it might be very helpful if you would give us a quick history lesson on the Electoral College—what is it, how does it work and why did the Founding Fathers think it was so important to include it in our Constitution?
ADAM CARRINGTON: That’s a great place to start. What it is, is simply the way we choose the President of the United States. How it’s set up is that each state in the United States is given electoral votes, which are equal to how many Congressmen it has; if you have 14 House members, two Senators, you’d have 16 electoral votes. We now have 538 of those total distributed through the United States and the District of Columbia. Each state then selects electors who meet together to choose the president. That’s the same as the number of electoral votes they have, and whatever candidate gets a majority of those electoral votes across the country wins the presidency. That’s why people are always talking about 270 now. That’s 50 percent plus one of all of the electoral votes across all the states in the country.
And why was it included? Why didn’t we do another system? In some ways it was a compromise at the Constitutional Convention between legislative selection—having Congress select the president, and popular vote—having the people do it as a whole. And what it was seen as was the best of both of those and avoiding the worst of both of those, that it would include like popular election, the consent of the people, and like Congress, a special body selected by the people with the character and knowledge to make an informed decision. And that’s why they thought it was so important to pick the chief executive of the United States, for those reasons.
TRACI GRIGGS: People complain that the Electoral College undermines the idea of “one person, one vote.” It really does do that, doesn’t it?
ADAM CARRINGTON: It does in the strict sense, but I think if we’re going to take the wisdom of the Founders as a whole, we’ll see many other structures in the Constitution do that too. Ex: the Senate, lifetime appointment of judges. But the Founders thought that there was more to a good and just regime than “one person, one vote.” They wanted consent of the governed, but they wanted consent for the purpose of protecting everyone’s equal natural rights, and they understood that all human beings are fallible and a majority can be tyrannical and bad, just like one or a few people can be. So what they wanted to do was respect consent of the governed, but channel that decision so that it was reasonable, and channel it in such a way so that when the people choose, they choose in the best way possible. Just like we often constrained the way we choose to make our choices better, that’s what they tried to do with this system, because it wasn’t just what choice we made, it’s how we made that choice that mattered to them.
TRACI GRIGGS: Interestingly, about a dozen states have passed laws that would give their Electoral College votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote. So that’s regardless of how their particular state voted. Now those laws can’t go into effect unless enough states pass similar laws, but give us some perspective on just how dramatic a change that would be for American elections.
ADAM CARRINGTON: I think it would change fundamentally how we look at the elections for president and how states, or campaigns look at them as well. There’d be a massive change first in campaigning. There’d be less of a focus on states, much more of a focus on population centers or media markets, getting out your kind of voter or wherever they are, and to some degree, ignoring voters that aren’t in your camp and others, and more therefore a focus on those questions. I think from other people looking at these elections, not just the campaigners, there would be the elimination of something we spend so much time looking at, which our state polls, maybe we would have regional polls, but I think the bigger focus would be on where are the big population centers going? What are they doing? It would nationalize the campaign and eliminate the state centric focus of it in a way that we’ve never seen given Electoral College’s focus on the states.
TRACI GRIGGS: Would you consider this to be a good change or bad change?
ADAM CARRINGTON: I think that there are a lot of drawbacks to it because I think that the nature of a more state-centered campaign actually forces candidates much more to appeal to broader arrays of voters. Now, people complain that they only campaign in swing states, but those swing states force them to appeal to voters within those states and other places that are less like them than, I think, they would if they had to just run up vote totals nationally. I think it creates a kind of moderating influence that makes the different candidates less partisan and more conducive to the public good. We often say we’re too partisan now. I think that would be much worse if we had just a pure national popular vote.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about our courts. From your understanding of history, do you feel like it is getting tougher for our judicial nominees these days? Are they being more unfairly scrutinized or attacked today than they were in previous years?
ADAM CARRINGTON: I think two things have happened that both result in saying yes to that. One, I think the importance of the courts has skyrocketed as other branches, such as Congress, have abdicated a lot of power as there’ve been more battles between the Executive and the Judiciary. I think that has caused the courts to be seen as much more important than they were in the past. The other is that so much of our lives are now recorded and able to be scrutinized. Much less of our lives are secret and much less of a public person’s life is secret. And when you put those two together, I think yes, judges today—and potential Supreme Court Justices—are under much more scrutiny than in the past.
TRACI GRIGGS: Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has decided to employ the “nuclear option,” he says, to dramatically reduce the amount of debate time for many judicial nominees. Do you feel this would damage the integrity of this process? What effect would it have?
ADAM CARRINGTON: I think if it was done out of any other context, it would be—the Senate should be a place where there should be extra protections for debate—but it doesn’t come without a context. I think that context really shows that it’s more of a result of a damaged process, not a damaging of the process. Debate is meant to deliberate and refine one’s choice. Really, what it’s being used for now is obstruction and to stop the process. And I think if we could restore the original purpose of having unlimited debate, which is to have good deliberation and a good process for making choices for judges, then we shouldn’t have those limits. But as long as it’s going to be used, by really both sides when they’re in the minority, to obstruct, I think that steps need to be taken to make sure that the debate has an endpoint, so the purpose of a real debate is fulfilled, which is to choose in the end.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned that we put a lot more emphasis on our Supreme Court Justices right now, and some have suggested that the next president of the United States might move to increase the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Many people may not realize that number is not set in stone. So why do we have nine justices?
ADAM CARRINGTON: Really, tradition. We originally only had six and we’ve had nine since 1869. It changed a lot between the founding in 1869, and I think there were a couple reasons we’ve kept that. One is the uneven number allows every case to have a definitive decision. You don’t have ties. I think that number was seen as reasonable, that nine justices is a good amount to divide up the workload of opinion writing and research. Also, that it wasn’t so big that the judges couldn’t deliberate and discuss together how they interpret the law. But I think also it’s where it is now because more and more people came to see changing the court regularly as too nakedly partisan for a court you want to be above partisanship and apply the law in a neutral way, regardless of who the litigants are, regardless of what the judge’s opinions are. The more you move the numbers of the Court around, the more that institution is seen as something much more nakedly political then the Constitution imagined it to be.
TRACI GRIGGS: So how much concern do you have that some of the brightest shining stars in politics seem to have very little understanding of the Constitution, of basic economics, international relations, and yet have a huge following. Is this a concern to you going forward in politics and in our nation?
ADAM CARRINGTON: Certainly! And it’s not just because it’s my job to hopefully teach people that are better informed on this. But it’s the idea that if we believe that this document is on one hand, our governing document and on the second, that it’s a wise governing document, then for people who are supposed to be elected under it and supposed to follow it, to not do so is doubly bad. It’s bad because it means we are not really following the rule of law of our supreme law of the land. And it also means that we’re not following the wisest path that the Founders set out, and following some lesser path. And I think that it shows a kind of illiteracy, not just among those who are being elected, but sadly among a number of people that are electing, that right standards of the justice and process the Constitution sets up is not front and center and not something that’s disqualifying when our elected officials show ignorance of it.
TRACI GRIGGS: For those of us who are listening and who may think to themselves either: I forgotten a lot of things, or I was never taught very well all these principles from our Constitution and by our Founding Fathers, what kind of suggestions would you have for people listening who might want to—at whatever age they are—learn some things so that they can go forward with this wisdom that you mentioned.
ADAM CARRINGTON: I would make a couple suggestions. One is just read the Constitution for yourself. It was written as a document of the people, by the people, for the people, and so don’t be intimidated by it. You can understand it as an American citizen. Second, I would point to actually there’s lots of resources online for reading what the Founders thought. Read something like the Federalist Papers. They were written to defend the Constitution. They were written as op-eds for newspapers. So they are, again, meant for the people to understand and discuss. And then third, I’d point to where I work, Hillsdale College. We have an array of online courses that are free, where our goal is civic education, including a U.S. Constitution course, where we strive to make available ways that citizens can educate themselves. So I would say, every American should take this very seriously. Whatever else their career path, that they are a citizen all the time. There are these resources out there that would allow us to exercise our sovereignty as the sovereign people in a much more full and informed way.
TRACI GRIGGS: Excellent. I would highly recommend your Constitution 101 online course. That’s a very good resource. I know from personal experience.
Dr. Carrington, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today, and for all that you do to educate future generations of American citizens to know and understand the uniqueness of this great country.
ADAM CARRINGTON: Thank you. It’s humbling to do it, and an honor and pleasure too.
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