Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Jesse Wegman's "Let the People Pick the President"

Jesse Wegman is a member of the New York Times editorial board, where he has written about the Supreme Court and legal affairs since 2013.

He previously worked as a reporter, editor, and producer at outlets including National Public Radio, The New York Observer, Reuters, The Daily Beast, and Newsweek. He graduated from New York University School of Law in 2005.

Wegman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins a new section of Chapter 3, which focuses on the actual functioning (or dysfunctioning) of the Electoral College in the Republic's early years. On that page I describe how the most significant founders, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, came quickly to understand how poorly designed the system was, and I noted their efforts to change it. Madison proposed amending the Constitution to fix the College in two ways: First, prohibit the winner-take-all rule, which states were widely adopting by the early 19th century, even though the framers never discussed it. Second, eliminate the back-up election procedure in the Constitution's text, which throws any contested election to the House of Representatives, where each state gets a single vote for president. Madison called this an "evil"; Jefferson called it "the most dangerous blot in our Constitution." It has been triggered twice, in 1800 and 1824, and never since. (And I hope never again.)

Page 99 neatly conveys a central pillar of my book's argument: The Electoral College was not, as we were led to believe in school, a crucial component of the framers' brilliant constitutional design. To the contrary, it was a last-minute compromise thrown together by a few delegates in a side room in order to get the Constitution completed and sent to the states for ratification. They didn't fully consider the ways in which it might backfire, and when it started doing so only a few years later, they quickly came to regret the system they'd built.

The book goes into much more detail about the history of the College's adoption, the role of slavery, the role of state power, and the ways the winner-take-all rule has always bedeviled us as a country and made millions of citizens irrelevant to the outcome of the election, but this basic idea is very important: The founders were brilliant political thinkers, and they got a lot of things right. They were also flawed, biased human beings who got a lot of things wrong. The Electoral College was one of these things. We will never be able to fulfill the framers' original vision of a nation in which all people are equal until we treat people that way in the process of choosing our leader.

I like what's on Page 99 because it illustrates a feature of my book that many readers have told me they appreciate: the excavation of the "backstory" of the constitutional convention and of the framers' conflicted feelings about their creation. Our history has too often been told in an overly neat way, and I believe a lot of the myths and misconceptions that burden us today are the result of what we've left out. My book is an attempt to bring that complexity back into the picture, in a way that regular readers can relate to, and to demystify the Electoral College in particular, so that we may soon advance our democracy forward once again, toward a nation in which all people are equal.
Visit Jesse Wegman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue