Vladimir Putin, Faithless Elector

The Russian president embraces our Electoral College.

At a joint press conference yesterday in Bratislava with President Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the antidemocratic direction in which he’s been taking that country. Here’s how Putin answered:

I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president. Their canvases will be presented, will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens. This is, in essence, a system of the Electoral College, which is used, on the national level, in the United States, and it is not considered undemocratic, is it?

It’s been widely noted that this response was somewhat disingenuous about the workings of Russian government. The changes Putin made to the procedure for electing regional leaders of the Russian Federation work as follows: 1) Putin chooses a “candidate” for regional leader; 2) the regional parliament votes the “candidate” up or down; 3) if the “candidate” wins, end of story; 4) if the “candidate” loses, the regional parliament must vote again; 5) if the “candidate” loses a second time, the regional parliament is dissolved. Members of the regional parliaments therefore “face a choice between doing what Putin wants and losing their jobs,” Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained to me by phone. A reasonable shorthand for describing this process is to say that Putin appoints the regional leaders.

What really interests me, though, is Putin’s crafty-but-dishonest comparison of the Russian system to the Electoral College. Let’s accept, for the moment, Putin’s ridiculous fiction that the democratically elected regional parliaments have a free hand in choosing their leaders. Putin seems to be comparing this to the way democratically elected presidential electors have a free hand in choosing the president. In theory, the comparison holds up. Although some states have passed laws requiring electors to vote for the presidential ticket they were chosen to represent, these laws have never been tested in court and are probably unconstitutional. Electors are therefore free to be undemocratically “faithless” and vote any way they choose. In most recent elections there’s been at least one faithless elector, and it’s not inconceivable that one day electoral faithlessness will determine who gets chosen president. Putin’s observation that the Electoral College “is not considered undemocratic” was probably intended to carry an ironic sting: The Electoral College is indeed considered somewhat undemocratic, which is why people like me want to be rid of it.

Where Putin’s comparison breaks down is in presuming that rogue electors are the rule rather than the exception. Electors are chosen largely based on their commitment to the ticket they represent, and therefore they are predisposed to behave themselves. The American electorate expects electors not to have a free hand in choosing the president. This is precisely the opposite of how democracy (what’s left of it) in Russia works. American electors are supposed to be automatons, and usually (given party discipline) they are. Russia’s regional parliaments are supposed to be independent, and usually (given Putin’s leverage) they won’t be. Given a choice, I’ll take the flaws in our democratic system over the flaws in theirs.