Election Day Shocks

Nearly a half century ago, an anthropologist named Cora Du Bois analyzed the values of U.S. society and concluded that Americans are optimistic activists. They expect that they and their institutions will succeed and succeed quickly. When they run up against a hard question, they want the answer today, if not sooner. Taken as a whole, they are an impatient people whose slogan might well be, Let’s get this show on the road.

That profile is still accurate. It could have been checked out on Election Day at any polling place where the turnout was heavy. If an insecure person darted between the curtains into a voting booth and failed to reappear promptly, there was much shuffling of feet and rolling of eyes on the line waiting outside. Patience is not high on most Americans’ list of virtues.


On Nov. 8, however, the nation was jolted by the first of several shocks administered by this year’s presidential election. The citizens found that they were going to have to wait for an answer to the question of who their next president will be. This made many of them truly and deeply distressed, but there was no more use complaining about it than complaining about the weather. The closeness of the results in Florida and the problems that produced were simply what happened, and the story had to go on from there. The voters might as well, indeed they might better, accept former President Jimmy Carter’s advice and be patient. They could also remind themselves that in the early years of the republic, when communications were slow, villages on the far frontier had to wait a month or so to learn who had won a presidential election.

Everyone hopes, of course, that the waiting this year will not be agonizingly extended. It may be over before these lines are printed. Since no evidence of fraud has been perceived or even alleged, the courts should not become deeply involved in this dispute.

Even after it has been determined who the 43d president will be, certain great issues will still be around. The nightmarish confusion in Florida has strengthened the hand, to say nothing of the voices, of those who want the Electoral College system to be abolished. The college was devised for the indirect election of the president and vice president of the United States; and since it is part of the Constitution, it has seemed nearly untouchable. As one commentator put it on election night: Keep your hands off the Constitution!

This is a wise axiom, but not an absolute principle. The Constitution has already been amended 27 times. A case can certainly be made for replacing the Electoral College by a direct popular vote for the president. The framers of the Constitution thought the college would protect smaller states from the tyranny of the majority, but it is generally agreed that it is not working today in the way they intended. Demands for elimination of the Electoral College will be intensified, because it now appears, at least at this writing, that it has brought about the election of a president who received a smaller popular vote than his main opponent.

All the same, there is something troubling about the denunciations of the Electoral College. The critics show a certain disrespect for a more fundamental and more valuable political reality - the federalism embodied in the U.S. Constitution. That federal system divides the business of government between the states and Washington. During the past quarter century, there has been an erosion of this federalism, a tendency to brush it off or ignore its values. That happened in Roe v. Wade in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws banning abortion. It happened in a lesser way when the Clinton administration tried to impose some degree of centralization upon the public school system by luring the states into accepting a program of national testing for national standards. That plan has not had much success, but it illustrates the temptation to erode federalism.

It may be time for a serious Congressional debate about the Electoral College, but the discussion must not be rushed, and it must weigh both the disadvantages and the advantages of direct popular vote. If, for instance, the margin of victory were to be narrow nationwide, there might have to be recounts not in one state but in 50.

The election’s aftershocks will persist until January and beyond. The new president will have no mandate. Congress, as Leon Panetta recently said, has spent the last six years in trench warfare. The new Congress will be so evenly divided as to make an armistice unlikely. But if the nation’s basic business is to be done, members of Congress must stop talking about the need for the two sides to work together and actually start cooperating.

Non in commotione Dominus (1 Kgs. 19:11), God is not in the whirlwind. And neither is the good conduct of a government.

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