The Consent of the Governed?

On March 18, 2018, Vladimir Putin was reelected to his fourth term as president of Russia. The results of the election were hardly a surprise. Putin is a dictator, the tyrant of a closed society which is a stranger to the freedoms which Americans take for granted.

Given the foreordained outcome, an obvious question is: why have an election at all? One reason might be that even though elections in Russia and other dictatorships are charades, they at least provide the appearance that the nation’s ruler has the consent of those who are ruled.

When the United States declared its independence on July 4, 1776, the Declaration asserted that governments “[derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”   That phrase has become sacred in the United States. And not only here. Innumerable dictatorships have staged ersatz elections because even tyrants want at least to claim that they exercise their power at the behest of the people over whom they rule.

What’s the attraction? Is it possible the idea of ‘consent of the governed’ is so magnetic that even undemocratic countries thirst for the confirmation that it provides?

It is therefore highly ironic that in the United States, the president does not derive his (perhaps someday her) power from the consent of the governed. Mayors of American cities do, as do governors of American states. But presidents do not.

This is because the president is the nation’s only elected official who is not elected by the people. He is elected by “electors.”   Who are electors?  According to Article 2, Section 1, of the Constitution, they are individuals appointed by each state “in such manner as the legislature thereof may decide.”   When Americans cast their vote for president, they are not voting for the person whose name they mark on the ballot. They are voting for a slate of electors – people unknown to the voters – who are pledged to vote for that person when the electoral college meets. These pledges are usually but not always honored. There is such a phenomenon as a “faithless elector.”

The system of instructing electors left something out: are you voting for president or vice-president?

Because of a poorly designed system, a tie totally unintended by the people supporting the candidates took place in 1800. The 12th amendment had to be added to the Constitution in 1804 to make the system even minimally functional.

There have been 58 presidential elections in American history.  In five of those, the person elected did not receive the most popular votes. Two of those instances have happened recently – in 2000 and 2016.  Statisticians tell us that such occurrences are likely to take place more often in the future.

Like Russia, our chief executive does not possess the consent of the governed.   He receives the consent of the states, but that’s what not the first three words of the Constitution say. They say “We The People,” not “We the States.”