I have a confession to make. It’s been 15 years so I suppose it’s time.
During the spring of 2007, I was on a lecture tour of Russia sponsored by the U.S. State Department to talk about the American political system and American elections. I started in Moscow, headed east to Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk, and finally ended up in Vladivostok. My presentation covered the many nuances of American elections, and the Russian audiences seemed to enjoy it.
The confession? Every time I got to the part discussing the electoral college, I skipped it. I just couldn’t do it.
Not only was it embarrassing to be in Russia telling them how the U.S. system so easily can elevate the candidate with the least amount of votes, it also felt almost criminal to provide details about a process that could so easily be manipulated by a power-hungry leader eager to stay in office while in a country that had so recently been a dictatorship.
The process of selecting the president via the electoral college is not only embarrassing but also rather sickening given its roots in slavery.
At the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson proposed the direct national election of the president. James Madison responded that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South, saying, “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive (i.e., extensive) in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”
In other words, in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million) could not vote. But the electoral college — a prototype of which Madison proposed in this same speech — instead let each southern state count its slaves to determine its share of the overall count.
The rules regarding the counting and acceptance of electoral votes are also so obscure and vague as to be ripe for manipulation. In 1887, the Electoral Count Act was passed after the presidential election of 1876 where several states sent multiple slates of electors to Congress and Congress declared the candidate who had lost the popular vote to be the winner.
Now the Electoral Count Act needs to be reformed since Donald Trump, after losing the 2020 presidential election, decided that the law allowed his vice president, Mike Pence, to reject some states’ electoral votes and declare Trump the victor.
I openly acknowledge my naivete and smugness. I was worried that Vladimir Putin and some Russians would do anything to stay in power but didn’t consider the possibility that an American president would do so. I was wrong about that.
Currently, there is a bipartisan group of senators working on reforming the Electoral Count Act. These reforms would include clarifying that the vice president has no power to reject a state’s electors, banning state legislatures from appointing electors after Election Day, detailing specific grounds for objections to electoral votes and raising the threshold for Congress to consider objections, which currently are set at only one senator and one member of the House.
Also, protections for election workers would be put in place.
I’m sure the Kansas congressional delegation will support these reforms after seeing how close one president came to successfully exploiting the weaknesses of the electoral college system.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Electoral Count Act must be amended to thwart future presidential coup