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Constitution Revolution: Why the Founders Were Obsessed With Future Elections

Most Americans don't spend much time thinking about who decides when and where our elections will be held. But could this power be abused?

AP Photo/The Post-Star, Steve Jacobs

This post is the continuation of a weekly Constitution Revolution series for TheBlaze.com and TheBlaze Radio’s Chris Salcedo Show. To see last week’s lesson, click here.

This post has been updated.

Article 1, Section 4 is probably a section that you haven’t paid much attention to in the past. It isn't controversial and you aren’t going to see it at the center of a Supreme Court case any time soon.

But even though this section might not seem at all significant, if we spend some time looking into it we will see one of the glaring mistakes we are making in how we approach government today.

Here’s the text:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be [on the first Monday in December,]* unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.

*Changed by the 20th Amendment

So the state legislatures get to decide the details of when and where our elections will be held. But if Congress sees a problem, they can make some changes. No big deal, right?

It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but when the Constitution was being ratified there was a decent amount of debate about this clause. Several of the Founders felt that this power could be dangerous if it was put into the wrong hands. Because of that the discussion surrounded how this power was most likely to be abused - and then what steps needed to be taken to prevent that abuse.

[sharequote align="center"]Any power that we grant to government - no matter how small - will most likely be abused.[/sharequote]

There were two distinct sides to the debate.

On the one hand, you had people - like James Wilson of Pennsylvania and Rufus King of Massachusetts - who didn’t think the states could be trusted to make those decisions alone. In their minds, they could see all kinds of ways that the power to decide how our elections are held could be used as a weapon to harm the federal government. For example:

  • The states could simply refuse to set a time and place for elections. By preventing representatives from being elected, they could make it impossible for the federal government to operate.
  • The states could manipulate how elections were held to ensure that a certain type of candidate would win. Since the states were already responsible for choosing senators, this could effectively give them control over both branches of Congress - and rob the American people of their voice in the House of Representatives.

On the other hand, you had people - like Patrick Henry of Virginia and a very prominent New York writer called “Brutus" - who thought allowing Congress to decide the details about our elections posed the bigger threat. They were worried that a rogue Congress could use this power to destroy the states altogether and concentrate power in the federal government. For example:

  • Is it really a good idea to allow members of Congress to decide how they themselves will face re-election? They could manipulate the way the elections were held to ensure that they would stay in office.
  • Just like the states, Congress could use this power to ensure that its favored type of candidate would win - which would eliminate any direct voice the American people had in the federal government.

In the end, they went with the type of dual responsibility that we see in Article 1, Section 4, with Congress ultimately having the final say. Obviously we can debate whether or not the choice they made was the right one. But the bottom line is that they had a lengthy discussion trying to figure out the least dangerous way of deciding how and when our elections would be held.

That seems like basic common sense. Any time we are thinking about granting a new power to the government, we ought to stop and figure how that power could be used against us. Then we should take steps to protect ourselves from that.

Cassidy Dezik, 2, stands at the voting booth while her mother, Katie Dezik, casts her vote on Election Day in the Sanford Street School in Glens Falls, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/The Post-Star, Steve Jacobs) Cassidy Dezik, 2, stands at the voting booth while her mother, Katie Dezik, casts her vote on Election Day in the Sanford Street School in Glens Falls, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/The Post-Star, Steve Jacobs) 

But we don’t bother with any of that today. We just allow the federal government to assume enormous amounts of power and hope that our politicians will be wonderful people.

Just recently we decided that we’re going to allow the president to bind us to a treaty with Iran without bothering to go through the ratification process. Clearly that’s unconstitutional. But the people in Washington, D.C. are justifying this using the theory that the president has the power to sign “executive agreements.” Under this theory - even though something looks like a treaty and acts like a treaty - as long as the super-smart people in our government wink at each other and decide to call it something else the president doesn’t need to have it ratified by the Senate.

Whatever the logic, we’ve decided to give the president the authority to unilaterally bind the United States to agreements with foreign nations.

Just take a moment and see how many different ways you can come up with for how that power could be abused. Let’s see, since the president doesn’t have to present the details of the agreement to the Senate:

  • that makes it infinitely easier for the president to be blackmailed or bribed.
  • the president could much more easily hide dirty, backroom details from the American people
  • the president could negotiate a deal that would benefit his own personal or financial interests.

That’s just what came immediately to my mind - and I’m not nearly as creative as our politicians when it comes to figuring out how to abuse power. So what are we doing to protect ourselves from this power being abused? We are going to hope that this president - and all future presidents - are going be decent, honest people who would never do anything bad. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?

You might think I’m being extreme or paranoid here. But while he was discussing Article 1, Section 4, Brutus pointed out a fact of life that we would be wise to remember:

[P]ower, lodged in the hands of rulers to be used at discretion, is almost always exercised to the oppression of the people, and the aggrandizement of themselves.

This is what most of our Founders understood that we have completely forgotten. Any power that we grant to government - no matter how small - will most likely be abused. So any time we are considering allowing our public officials to use a new power, we need to have a thorough discussion of what it means for our liberty. We need to ask ourselves: How might this power be abused? Is it necessary to grant this power to the government? If it is necessary, what can we do to protect ourselves?

All three of those questions should be a matter of common sense. Unfortunately, many people today consider it radical to believe that we need to protect ourselves from the government. It looks like we’re going to have to learn the hard way that hope is not an effective strategy for preserving freedom.

Chad Kent is an author and speaker with a unique style that makes the Constitution simple and fun. Listen to Chad every Saturday during The Chris Salcedo Show on TheBlaze Radio and visit his web site at www.ChadKentSpeaks.com.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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