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Do We Elect Trustees or Delegates?

May 6th, 2016 by dk

Republican delegates sent from Oregon to the national party’s summer convention in Cleveland will have less flexibility than most of their colleagues. Those arriving from Pennsylvania will have the most. Looking closely at how the states’ delegate rules differ opens a window into their histories.

Most delegates in Cleveland are bound by their state to honor their pledge on the first ballot. If they were sent by the people to vote for Trump, that obligation usually expires after the first ballots are counted. After that, they can vote for anyone they choose.

Delegates sent from Oregon are bound to their pledge for longer — until the third ballot. Pennsylvanians are barely bound at all. This distinction echoes a controversy that began in Philadelphia in 1787 at the beginning of the Constitutional Convention.

The first question debated inside the Pennsylvania State House was whether its 55 participants should consider themselves delegates or trustees. Some believed themselves to be trustees, bound by honor to vote in every matter as the majority of their constituents would vote.

John Adams in particular insisted this was not only unworkable, but also dishonorable. The trust of the people is essential for governance, but it couldn’t be separated from an additional trust. The trust between representatives would be built over time. And often, over beer. The constituents would have their opportunity to voice their displeasure at the next election. But during deliberations with legislating colleagues, each leader should be allowed — even encouraged — to follow their conscience.

A close reading of the United States Constitution reveals a deep skepticism about “the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Only white, male landowners were given the vote. Their votes were counted directly only for the House of Representatives. The Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court were each given insulation from the will of the people.

Once the Constitution was completed and signed, a woman at the door asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government he and his colleagues had given the young country. Franklin responded, “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.” (Franklin had not yet reached the City Tavern across the street, so he may have betrayed a particular impatience.)

Keeping a republic has not been easy. Secession has been contemplated. Civil war has been endured. But the republic’s greatest threat may be the one most vividly imagined at its start. The final disunity of the states of America may come from direct democracy.

Over the years, America has become more democratic, but with less of the original worries that democratic innovation could go too far. The last peep of that concern may have come a century ago, when a New Yorker visited Oregon.

After losing a race for governor, Frederick M. Davenport took time off from pursuing political office to travel to Oregon, which by that time had gained a reputation as an incubator for direct democracy. He described Oregon as “the native haunt of direct democracy” for the weekly New York magazine “The Outlook” in 1915. He went on:

“A genuine and efficient democracy must have two elements: responsible and representative leadership and the final lodgment of control over that leadership in the instinct, the common sense, and the conscience of the whole people. The perplexities of government and progress should be worked out by responsible representatives.

The characteristic of direct democracy is its deep-seated distrust of representative leadership, and its superior confidence in the instinct, the common sense, and the conscience of the mass of the people. There is no State which I visited in which this modern political tendency can be traced to its conclusion and partial confusion better than in the State of Oregon.”

Since then, Oregon’s citizens have voted on more initiatives and referenda than any other state. Eugene voters must first approve many major highway projects before they can be built. Certain tax incentives and transportation projects have been modified or terminated because of popular votes. Some believe Eugene’s city hall or a railroad quiet zone merit a citywide vote before progressing.

Oregon delegates are first trustees. We place superior confidence in the instinct of the people, for better or for worse.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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