The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“The Man Who Saved the Electoral College”: Christopher DeMuth on Michael Uhlmann in National Affairs

by James Wilson Institute on January 17, 2020
History, Politics

In the wake of JWI Senior Scholar Michael Uhlmann’s passing in October 2019, Hudson Institute Distinguished Fellow, Christopher DeMuth singles out the pivotal role that Ulhmann, then a 30-year-old Senate staffer, played in stopping a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. In “The Man Who Saved the Electoral College,” published in National Affairs, DeMuth recounts how the amendment passed the House by a margin of 338-70, with a majority of state legislatures ready to ratify it. Uhlmann, in a paper written to advise senators on how to consider the House’s amendment, embarked to prove how the “‘deeply radical'” decision to end the Electoral College threatened the structures of reasonable majoritarianism, allowing presidential candidates to become vote aggregators, without any fealty to the political center, to the interests of a diverse and dispersed citizenry, or to the Congress responsible for representing those interests and overseeing the president. Uhlmann’s defense of the Electoral College quickly spread among senators and their staff and as a result the Senate refused to affirm the amendment. Uhlmann’s defense of the Electoral College may be found on page 38 of this linked PDF.

A few excerpts from the DeMuth essay:

“But there is an episode in Mike Uhlmann’s political career where his role was so singular and momentous that it could not possibly be gainsaid, although it could easily be forgotten (characteristically, he himself did nothing to memorialize it). Finding himself at a constitutional barricade in the summer of 1970, he successfully defended the Electoral College at a moment of maximum peril.”

“The Electoral College addresses the challenge by organizing the presidential election by states, with state electoral votes combining the House’s and Senate’s weighting schemes…every plausible campaign strategy will involve competing in a diversity of states and regions and engaging with differing and conflicting local concerns. The state custom of winner-take-all voting is an additional, powerful inducement to strategic diversification, which is why so many states have adopted it. In office, a president can identify with Congress’s preoccupation with local interests and state-by-state coalition-building, because his political position involves similar constraints.”

“We will continue to debate the merits of the Electoral College, but as a practical matter, its future in the modern age depends on the continuing vitality of national parties, state allegiances, and home-team commitments. The College has protected them — now they must protect the College.”

You can read the full essay here.

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— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790