Do you know why we have the electoral college to vote for the president? Or why state legislatures used to vote for U.S. senators? A partial answer is the Framers lack of trust and suspicion of the average voter’s understanding.
The Framers were made up of the elites from the states in the 1780s: Washington, Adams, Franklin, Monroe, and Madison, among others. They debated and discussed the structure of the Constitution for four months in the summer of 1787. One thing that the majority agreed on: The people could only be partly trusted to rule the nation. Over time, though, this approach has been changed through the Amendment process, giving progressively more power to the people.
The first three words of the Constitution are “We the People.” These words were chosen instead of “We the States,” or “We the White Male Educated Elites,” or any variety of other choices, mainly for political reasons.
The Philadelphia Founders had to get the Constitution ratified, and they knew that Congress and the states would resist the major changes that the Founders proposed in the newly written Constitution. They would do so because it took power away from both Congress under the Articles of Confederation and the states, and placed it in the hands of a more centralized government. Going directly to the people to ratify the new Constitution would bypass the established powers.
The reason we have an electoral college to vote for the president is that those electors were seen as more sophisticated, more educated, and frankly smarter than the average voter who might be ruled by emotion rather than reason. The electoral college was set up to protect the people from their own perfidy.
The Founders had the same attitude about the election of U.S. senators. The 17th Amendment changed the rule in 1913. Since that date, senators have been elected directly by the people.
It took the Civil War in the 1860s to change attitudes about who should rule this nation: The elites, or the people.
Out of the victory by the Union came the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. With the 13th Amendment, slavery was abolished. With the 14th Amendment, the definition of citizenship was clarified to mean one born in this country, or who had been legally naturalized. The 15th Amendment gave adult black males the right to vote, although Southern whites soon found ways to strip them of their voting rights through Jim Crow laws like poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests.
It wasn’t until 1920 that women were given the right to vote in national elections with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The 23rd Amendment gave people in the District of Columbia the right to vote, as the size of government grew during the Great Depression of the 1930s and afterward. The 24th Amendment ended poll taxes—paying to vote—in the nation, helping to give back African-Americans their rights of suffrage in 1964.
The Vietnam War reduced eligibility to vote from 21 years old to 18. The perspective of the nation was that if you are old enough to fight and die for your country, you should have the right to decide who is sending you into battle.
As you can see from this chronology, the People disagreed with the Founders. They didn’t want the elites to have all the power while theirs was diluted by archaic rules to prevent them from voting.
We are again living in an age where the wealthy elites have regained power. They have accomplished this through the Supreme Court Citizens United decision of 2010 which turned corporations into citizens and money into free speech. The costs for getting elected have multiplied exponentially. Now an organization like the NRA, and wealthy elites like the Koch brothers, can use their vast wealth and influence to buy elections and our representatives through lies, deceit, secrecy, threats and intimidation.
The recent spate of shootings has jarred Americans into action. Young people have been galvanized to protest and demonstrate for the lost right to feel safe. Women, tired of sexual harassment and inequality, have been roused to file for political office.
Are we on the cusp of other amendments that will further give power to the people, and diminish the influence of the wealthy elites? Time will tell. It is a cycle that has repeated itself through our nation’s history. Perhaps we will again see this cycle repeated.