Over the coming months, we will witness one of the most remarkable aspects of American political life — the peaceful transfer of political authority from one administration to another. Because this is commonplace in America, we tend to overlook the novelty of this phenomenon. However, Americans from our founding generation understood the significance of this fact.
Many people have observed, approvingly, that the election of 1800 was the first time in human history that power shifted from one party to another without violence and bloodshed. One woman wrote at the time that “The changes in administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder.”
Our Electoral College is critical to the peaceful transfer of authority following presidential elections. It helps to ensure that the outcome is widely viewed to be legitimate. One of the great causes of instability in a nation is when the leaders of the government are viewed as illegitimate. This was all too evident in the last eight years.
President-elect Barack Obama’s victory in the Electoral College was rather wide. It has been construed by many as a decisive victory, and Obama is viewed by the overwhelming majority of Americans as the legitimate winner. Yet his margin of victory in the popular vote was 53%-46%. He won the votes of a narrow majority (roughly the same percentage of the vote, in fact, as Proposition 8 received in California). Viewed from this perspective, one might say that Obama takes office in a precarious position, rather than having received a mandate.
The point is this: the Electoral College is essential to assuring the legitimacy of presidential elections. Rather than receiving support from a very slim majority, or merely a plurality, the winner of the Electoral College is typically viewed as the legitimate winner of the office. Bill Clinton won a mere 43% of the popular vote in 1992. Similarly, John F. Kennedy won less than a majority of the vote in 1960. Yet most Americans considered these presidents to be legitimate.
For those who treasure America’s success in ensuring the peaceful transfer of political authority, based on the legitimacy of government by consent rather than force, this is no small consideration. Although it’s certain that the spurious attacks on the Electoral College will continue, let’s not overlook how helpful it has been in allowing us to avoid the disorder and violence that has plagued political transition in other nations. Perhaps this is something even the left can appreciate.