12/18/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

A Presidential Elector's Plea: Never Again!

On Monday I cast my ballot as a presidential elector. With a minimum of pageantry, 14 staunch Democrats gathered in New Jersey's 18th century State House to perform the ministerial function of ratifying the people's choice of Barack Obama as president, in conformity with the provisions of our 18th century federal constitution.

It was fun. But it is also a farce, as outdated as the powdered wigs and quills of the electors who met in 1789 and 1792 to anoint George Washington as president.

And the revelation that unrepentant Republican strategists are scheming to rig the Electoral College for 2016 in Northern states they currently control, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, is evidence that the farce is dangerous to democracy. It should be closed down immediately.

I could not stifle a guffaw as the presider over the New Jersey Electoral College, state Democratic chairman John Wisniewski, observed, "No other country in the world engages in this exercise that we have." Indeed, he added, the electoral college is a process "that outside this country almost no one understands."

Actually, some outside this country understood perfectly well the potential of an electoral college. For in fact there were regimes that created electoral colleges to give a dictatorship a phony veneer of legitimacy -- such as General Suharto's in Indonesia and General Park Chung Hee's in South Korea.

When the people in Korea and Indonesia brought down the authoritarian regimes that tyrannized them, they instituted direct election of their presidents. Surely Americans are just as capable of conducting a direct election of their president.

Our history has provided enough warning signs of the system's antidemocratic malfunction that we should already have closed the college in favor of direct election. Three times in American history the federal constitution's indirect election machinery blocked the candidate chosen by the voters and delivered the presidency to his rival.

By coincidence, in each case it was a Democrat who was denied election, and in each case it was the conservative son or grandson of a previous president who was installed -- in 1824, in 1888, and fatefully in 2000.

While New Jersey's Electoral College was meeting in Trenton, across the Delaware River Pennsylvania's Republican governor told the meeting of his state's 20 Democratic electors, "We are here because the system succeeded." He spoke with knowing irony, because he and his Republican-controlled legislature are the linchpin of the new right-wing plan to rig the system to ensure that it does not succeed in ratifying the popular will in the future -- just as Pennsylvania Republicans were linchpins of the notorious voter identification stratagem of this election cycle.

The change in the electoral rules they envision in states Obama carried would select electors from gerrymandered congressional districts. The scheme would have given Mitt Romney 12 of Pennsylvania's Electors, and Obama just 7 (one congressional district is still too close to call), in a state the president carried by over five percentage points. It would have given Romney 9 of the 16 electors in Michigan, a state that Obama carried by ten percentage points. But the plotters intend no such change in states that Romney carried, such as Texas, Georgia or North Carolina.

In his remarks to the New Jersey Electoral College, presiding chairman Wisniewski acknowledged that this "ritual" is "dusty and archaic." It was, he added, "founded in the very essence of the start of our country." (The same could be said of slavery.)

At the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry -- who ironically would give his name to the hoary political skullduggery of "gerrymandering" on which the newest conservative scheme to thwart the popular vote depends -- stated the prevailing view of the opponents of popular election of the president: "The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men."

James Madison made a case for "an election by the people or rather by the qualified part of them," even as he acknowledged it was disadvantageous to the Southern states (who would have many fewer voters, since much of their population were black slaves barred from voting, but for apportioning electors and congressmen those slaves were counted, albeit at discount). Madison lost that battle in 1787.

Clearly it is long past time to prove James Madison right. The fact that there was no presidential campaign at all in 38 of the states -- while voters in 12 swing states were bombarded beyond human endurance with endless presidential campaign ads and phone calls -- speaks to the madness of the current system.

The legislatures of those neglected 38 states -- both conservative "red" and liberal "blue" -- have a vital interest in being part of presidential campaigns again. They should call for a constitutional convention to abolish the electoral college and institute direct election of our nation's chief executive.

The Congress should make such a convention unnecessary by submitting a constitutional amendment to the states to relegate the electoral college to history museums. And President Obama should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to keep the cause of American democracy on the national radar screen.

Monday's rites confer no sacramental grace on our democracy. We must not put our country's democratic legitimacy at risk the next time around.