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It’s the Constitution, stupid

Dan Smith

The political season is clearly upon us, but it isn’t limited to primaries and caucuses in obscure states. It’s come home to roost right here in our valley.

There is a new SUV running around the valley with a bumper sticker that reads, “Illegitimate President, Illegitimate War.”

Ignoring the sentiment about the current war, this driver has obviously never read the Constitution of the United States. Apparently, the driver is not alone.



Now former candidate, and former Vermont governor, Dr. Howard Dean has often introduced his backer, Al Gore as, “the popularly elected president of the United States.” Maybe he never took a high school civic class, or perhaps the Constitution isn’t widely read in his home state, or maybe anywhere else for that matter.

Article II, Section I of the Constitution addresses the election of the president and says in part, “He shall be elected as follows: Each state shall appoint in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in Congress. The electors shall meet and vote by ballot.”



It’s funny, but nowhere in that passage do I see the words “popularly elected” or “direct election.” Further, it doesn’t appear that the office of “popularly elected president” is outlined anywhere in the Constitution. The only office mentioned in the document is president and that one is chosen by the Electoral College, not by a vote of the people. To be sure, voters elect the members of the Electoral College, but not the president.

In our system, it doesn’t matter that Al Gore won the popular vote by about 500,000 out of 105 million votes cast. He didn’t win the electoral vote. Further, since electoral votes are winner take all, it doesn’t matter if a presidential candidate wins a state by one vote or one million votes, the candidate gets all the state’s electoral votes.

Why the founding fathers chose such an obtuse system is, today at least, a point of academic discussion. The Electoral College certainly began as a compromise between states that wanted their legislators to select the president and states that wanted direct election by the people. The founding fathers are also believed not to have trusted the people to directly elect the president. They all feared Aristotle’s classic dictatorship of the democracy.



In addition, they may have felt that the Electoral College would provide some further balance of power between large and small states. Since even the smallest state has at least three electoral votes, candidates today have to pay some attention to the South Dakotas and Alaskas of our nation.

Whether this is a good system or a bad system isn’t the question. It is our system. Any president chosen by this system is by definition legitimate. The wisdom of the Electoral College has been questioned many times. In fact, since 1787, there have been over 700 proposals in the Congress to change the system. None of them have succeeded.

But consider for a moment the alternatives if we really believe that the current occupant of the office holds it illegitimately. The election, particularly its Florida component, has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That is the end of the game. There is no higher court in which to appeal.

The only alternative remaining is the Yugoslav option – go out in the back yard, dig up the AK 47 and start the revolution. Fortunately, that is a choice that almost all Americans will avoid. We differ from Yugoslavia in that we are a nation of laws, not one of knee-jerk revolution.

However, we still have our just plain jerks, including the one whose vehicle sports the bumper sticker in question.

To that person, “It’s the Constitution, stupid!” So take the bumper sticker off, get a real life and move on!

Dan Smith teaches political science at Colorado Mountain College.


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