Thursday, December 15, 2016

Commemorating the Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights became effective 225 years ago today, and the importance of the ratification of ten of the twelve amendments to the Constitution proposed by the First Congress cannot be overstated. Increasingly through the course of our history, albeit brief, the first ten amendments have provided an essential foundation for the individual rights, freedom, and liberty that we often take for granted. 

The Bill of Rights must properly be understood as a check not just against government power directly, but also against the tyranny of the majority aligned on a certain political view, a religious sect, or belief about a social issue, which they will always attempt to impose on the minority through government action. James Madison addressed this very notion in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1788 discussing the pros and cons of a bill of rights:
In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly [sic] to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. . . . What use then it may be asked can a bill of rights serve in popular Governments? . . . The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.
The Bill of Rights is the reason why no one can be compelled to worship, to recite the pledge of allegiance, to incriminate themselves, to be tried without a lawyer, to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures, or to surrender their property without compensation, to name just a few. 

It is no accident that we owe the Bill of Rights not to the Federalists, who supported the strong federal government embodied in the Constitution, but rather to the Anti-Federalists, who were opposed to a strong central government and wanted more protections for the States and individuals than were provided. Essentially, the addition of the Bill of Rights arose from a compromise during the ratification period starting at the Massachusetts Ratification Convention in 1788, when the delegates agreed to ratification on the express understanding that amendments addressing their concerns would be forthcoming. Several other States thereafter took this same approach, and it became clear that a Bill of Rights would be prepared. It is ironic that we owe these fundamental protections to a group of people opposed to the Constitution as drafted by the Convention.

So you might be wondering what happened to the two proposed amendments (the first two listed in the resolution sent to the States) that were not ratified in 1791. One, addressing a formula for determining the size of the House of Representatives, is still technically pending, and the other, addressing congressional salaries, was finally ratified in 1992. On a related note, one sometimes hears that the First Amendment was listed "first" because it was considered the most important. But now you know the truth -- it is "first" only because the first two proposed amendments preceding it failed to achieve ratification when proposed. If you look closely at the document you will see that “Article the third” is what we know as the First Amendment. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Crash Course in the Electoral College

The Electoral College Helps Keep the States "United"

Official Tally of Electoral Votes, Election of 1800 

Here we are just about halfway between election day and the inauguration, and once again many questions are being raised about why we choose Presidents through the Electoral College -- including the assertion that the countrywide popular vote is the only legitimate way to elect a President. 

What is the Electoral College and Why Was it Created? 

The Electoral College is not a school; it is the process set forth in the Constitution for electing Presidents. The Constitution prescribes the process in Article II, Section 1, as amended by the 12th Amendment. 

Here is how it works in a nutshell:
  • Each state appoints electors -- in the manner it chooses -- equal in total to the number of Senators and Representatives it has in Congress, but none of them (or any government officer) can be an elector; 
  • The appointed electors then meet in their own states to vote; 
  • The lists of each state's votes are transmitted to the President of the Senate (the current Vice-President) and others; and
  • The votes are counted before Congress in joint session, and the person with a majority of the electoral votes is elected President. If no one has a majority, the President is chosen by the House of Representatives. (More on that and the origin of the 12th Amendment below.)