Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College, by Jesse Wegman

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jesse Wegman, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The current selection process for the election of the American president is undemocratic, argues Jesse Wegman in his book. While the Founding Fathers devised the Electoral College to keep the general public from skewing the results with their uneducated choices, they did so at a time that differs greatly from today. This arcane means of election is, as Wegman argues, unknown or misunderstood by many Americans even today. In the early part of his tome, Wegman explores the situation in colonial America that led the Founders to create this buffer system for election of their leader, as well as the arguments at the time. The Founders were not unanimous, though the strongest proponent of direct and popular election of the president—James Wilson—has fallen out of the history books for reasons Wegman presents in Chapter 1. Use of this Electoral College—which allocates all of the state’s electors (totalling the number of their representatives and senators sent to Congress) for the candidate who wins the most votes on Election Day—tended to create situations where certain factions or regionally populous areas could be powerhouses in choosing the winner. Even still, as Wegman argues, the discrepancies between a large state (California) and small one (Wyoming) actually benefits the smaller one in voting power, should one look at the population representation. Throughout history, this Electoral College has created some noticeable issues when it came to choosing the president (1800 being the first and largest soap opera for 200 years). Additionally, there were times (five in total) where the Electoral College winner did not capture the popular vote, meaning fewer people voted for the winner. In layman analysis, Wegman seeks to argue that the Electoral College promoted racial divide and national division, with the power-holders refusing the give up the advantage to level the playing field. However, much as many of the modern versions of racism and xenophobia in American politics, it is shrouded in loosely cobbled together arguments that make it smell more like a rose than the pile of dung it truly tends to be. Wegman explores some of the momentum to abolish the Electoral College, including a constitutional amendment that was begun in the late 1960s, but failed to pass muster in the strong US Senate. More recently, there has been a movement to shift talk to using the popular vote and yet still staying within the constitutional framework in which the Electoral College resides. Making ‘every vote equal’ seems to make sense on some level, but the arcane machinery in use is wrapped in that constitutional bow that many feel is too sacred to touch. After most presidential elections, the Electoral College gets an op-ed or two before disappearing for four years, only to rear its ugly head while many Americans (and people around the world) are baffled with how it all works. Wegman’s arguments are worth exploring and I would recommend anyone with an interest in the political machine of elections seek to read this, preferably before November 2020.

Many would say this book was penned as sour grapes after the 2016 election, or even those who are still smarting from 2000. However, even the current POTUS espoused the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College over popular vote in his Tweets from on High, until he realised the College (and the Russians) helped him defeat the system. Wegman argues throughout the book that the College failed masterfully in 2016, by allowing the candidate the system was designed to block to rise to victory. A filtered choice should have kept mob rule from choosing unqualified people to serve, and yet this is what happened. By unqualified, Wegman (and I… even the Founding Fathers) argues that it is someone who rides the waves of the politically detached elector, rather than he/she who is connected to the machinery and understands governing. The chapters in this tome are laid out clearly and allow for a layperson’s understanding, mixing history with modern discussions without going down an overly academic rabbit hole. It seeks not only to offer issues and blatant criticisms, but provides solutions to both sides of the argument. Wegman pulls no punches in arguing for the abolition of the Electoral College, feeling that the people should have the right to choose their president directly. Much like some of the Founding Fathers’ original ideas (male-only suffrage, slavery), the Electoral College was something that worked in late 18th century, but has outlived its usefulness. At a time when most of the Western World prefers the people to speak in as democratic a way as possible, one can hope that America will follow (or lead with a powerful statement) and dismantle or rejig the Electoral College to reflect the popular sentiment. Perhaps then it would truly be collegial!

Kudos, Mr. Wegman, for opening my eyes to this topic, which has long been of interest to me. As I sit inside a parliamentary democracy which has its own popular vote issues, I am always open to discussions of electoral reform!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons