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A weakness in the US Constitution

26 September 2007

A year’s campaigning means problems for the electoral system, says Bill Countryman

Our national elections in the United States are more than a year away, but we are already in the middle of a barrage of political activity and commentary. This early start reflects widespread expectation that we are on the verge of “regime change”, to borrow a phrase from the present administration. But it is also an accident of our constitutional history.

From the start, the US Constitution had to balance the interests of the less populous states with those of the more populous; otherwise, each would have refused to give up its sovereign status. In Congress, for example, each state’s number of Representatives is determined on the basis of population, but the least populous state and the most populous have two senators apiece.

In presidential elections, the Constitution created an electoral college and gave each state a number of votes equal to the sum of its Representatives and Senators, again assigning slightly greater weight to the less populous states. The system has created confusion ever since, as it means that a President can be elected without a majority of the popular vote — even, on rare occasions, with fewer votes than his main opponent.

At the beginning, however, there was no popular vote. State legislatures generally chose the electors. The pressure to move towards increased democracy went hand in hand in the early 19th century with the growth of the two-party system that has dominated American politics ever since. But, whatever else changes, the contest for influence between the more and the less populous states continues.

Two relatively small states, New Hampshire and Iowa, have long held pride of place as the site of the first primary contests, in which each party’s nominee for the presidency will be chosen. More populous states, such as California, New York, Texas, and Florida, have become increasingly restive, since the nomination sometimes seems to have been decided before their turn in the primary elections.

The parties, of course, do not want all the primaries occurring at once, since the candidates would be spread very thin; and the small states are unwilling to give up their edge. It is far from clear where all the pushing and shoving will lead. In the mean time, we wind up with a seemingly interminable political process before us, and an expectation that we will be sick of it before it is all over. Having the contest begin so early also raises the possibility that decisions made in advance of the November elections might come to seem ill-advised in the light of changing circumstances.

It is a reminder, of course, that those who frame constitutions cannot foresee the way they will actually work. I remember being told in school, long ago, that the founders had hoped the electoral college would be named from among senior public figures and would help deliver the country from partisan politics. So much for that idea! Politics follows power. Framers of churchly constitutions might do well to take note.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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