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I am new to American politics, so this question maybe very fundamental. I understand that impeachment is a legislative process akin to criminal indictment, and the House and the Senate compose the legislative bodies of the United States. But the recent impeachment trial of Donald Trump has turned out to be more about partisan politics where each party is hellbent on whether to impeach or whether not to impeach the president, the outcome of which is likely to be determined by which party controls the House/Senate rather than having a fair trial.

Questions:

  • Since the public decide whom to elect as a president, why can't they vote on impeaching the president?
  • What are the possible consequences/issues if the public is allowed to vote on impeaching a president?
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    I don't see why "mob justice" would be of any use to a nation that practices the rule of law? – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 20 '19 at 17:07
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call that “mob justice”. Many states have provisions to recall Governors (which is basically what this is asking about). – divibisan Dec 20 '19 at 17:16
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    The public doesn't vote for the president. – chrylis -on strike- Dec 21 '19 at 5:32
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    @com.prehensible Which is quite the opposite of a nation that practices the rule of law. "My prefered candidate did not win so I riot in the streets" is not what I would call a democratic process either. – MechMK1 Dec 21 '19 at 9:42
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    If you are new to American politics, you should read the United States Constitution first. No matter how nice or logical your ideas about removing the President might be, everything must be done in accordance with the Constitution. – EvilSnack Dec 21 '19 at 12:22

11 Answers 11

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Since the public decide whom to elect as a president, why can't they vote on impeaching the president?

The public doesn't (directly) decide whom to elect. The president is elected by the Electoral College, whose vote is generally determined by the popular vote. As for "why can't they vote on impeaching the president," the process of impeachment is outlined in the Constitution. The founders modeled this process after the British process of impeachment, as outlined in Federalist No. 65. While giving impeachment power to the judicial branch of government was considered, giving this power to the general population was not.

What are the possible consequences/issues if the public is allowed to vote on impeaching a president?

There are many possible issues with a direct popular impeachment process, far more than can be covered here. For a comprehensive list, search for arguments for and against the Electoral College. To name a few specifically with regard to impeachment:

  • The general public doesn't have the time or patience to listen to the facts of an investigation and will likely not take them into consideration.
  • The general public will likely receive any facts uncovered in an impeachment investigation through biased media sources, either via news outlets or social media. As such, the companies running these outlets would be able to exercise a large amount of control over the impeachment process.
  • All of the arguments about voter suppression and illegal voting that we hear about general elections would be argued against a popular impeachment vote.
  • Individual members of the public would not feel personally accountable for their votes, and would likely not think twice about impeaching a president because they dislike his policies, even if they do take the time to research the facts revealed in an impeachment investigation.

While members of Congress in both parties have demonstrated unwillingness to listen to the facts of the investigation, they are at least not subject to the last three points. There is no reasonable argument that members of Congress are voting twice or have their votes suppressed, and several Democrats have "defected," either voting against or abstaining from voting on the articles of impeachment, arguably because they are beholden to the people in their district whom they represent if they would like to be reelected.

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    I'm not sure "voter suppression" is a big point of difference here, since one could equally well argue that voter suppression affects the makeup of the House and Senate who vote on impeachment under the current system. – Geoffrey Brent Dec 21 '19 at 0:59
  • It's probably worth pointing out that the Constitution left it to the individual states to decide how to choose their representatives to the Electoral College. Over time, the consensus has become for it the choice to be dictated by the popular vote (which was originally intended to be little more than a non-binding referendum). – chepner Dec 21 '19 at 2:52
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    "While members of Congress in both parties have demonstrated unwillingness to listen to the facts of the investigation" - this is a false equivalence. While it is true that some members of the Democratic Party have been calling for impeachment for some time, the witnesses in the investigation provided ample evidence of the stated offenses. Witnesses in a position to refute this testimony were forbidden to testify by the White House. Whether you agree these offenses are impeachable is a separate issue and does not support assertion that D's have ignored the facts. – Llaves Dec 21 '19 at 5:16
  • "The general public will likely receive any facts uncovered in an impeachment investigation through biased media sources, either via news outlets or social media. As such, the companies running these outlets would be able to exercise a large amount of control over the impeachment process." - if politicians vote for it, those politicians are accountable to the public who will judge them based on the same biased facts, so I don't think this accomplishes much. – user253751 Dec 22 '19 at 22:38
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Because the authors of the Constitution didn't make a provision for it, of course. It's really not possible to come up with an authoritative answer on why they didn't, but there are some obvious practical & philosophical reasons.

For instance, consider the practical difficulties of setting up a special election, especially in 1789 when travel between parts of the country could take weeks. (Remember that originally the President took office in March following a November election.) In addition to the mechanics of the election, you would have an impeached President continuing in office for months while waiting for the results - not something conducive to a stable government.

On the philosophical side, the US was intended by the authors of the Constitution to be a representative democracy, not a direct one, thus the Electoral College and the original appointment of Senators by state legislatures. They didn't trust direct democracy, believing it would degenerate into mob rule. An impeachment & removal was supposed to be based on evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors". An election would, at base, be little more than a popularity contest.

  • you would have an impeached President continuing in office for months while waiting for the results If you count in the time needed to spread the information about the proceedings so that the public can vote, we are talking more about years than months. – SJuan76 Dec 20 '19 at 18:48
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    framers ... it's the framers of the constitution ... as we've heard about 482,498 times over the last two weeks – hmedia1 Dec 21 '19 at 18:59
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    @hmedia1: Sorry, I just think of framing as applying to a picture or a house, not a written document :-) – jamesqf Dec 22 '19 at 2:37
  • @jamesqf - me too. I was just letting it out :) – hmedia1 Dec 22 '19 at 5:15
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    "It's really not possible to come up with an authoritative answer on why they didn't". Not so. They may have debated the options in letters, or explained it later. – Paul Johnson Dec 22 '19 at 13:26
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The United States is not a direct democracy

The rules for impeaching the president are part of the Constitution, so it is worth looking back at how our election process worked back when the Constitution was written.

Our democracy was a lot less direct back then.

While Congresspeople have always been elected directly by the people, Senators and the Electoral College were originally chosen by state governments. The Founders were mistrustful of giving the unwashed masses too much direct power.

Additionally, communication back then was slow. While today it's possible to learn what Trump had for breakfast before lunch, back then it might be weeks or months before information about what a president was doing would filter back to the farmers living several states away. And like any game of telephone, the information will have undergone a significant amount of distortion while it traveled.

All this means that the Founders had no incentive to give the people an option of direct impeachment or recall. It didn't fit the model of how they envisioned electoral power working through the states, and it would have been slow and unfeasible from a practical perspective.

If we wanted to add a direct impeachment option, we would need a Constitutional Amendment (to override "The House of Representatives shall ... have the sole Power of Impeachment." in the Constitution), which are primarily created through Congress. Congress has little incentive to take one of their own powers and share it with somebody else.

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Elections are the only way Americans choose the President. Presidential elections are only every 4th year. And, in between elections, whoever won the prior election is the President. That is how the Constitution is written.

Impeachment has nothing to do with voters, campaigns, political opinions, etc. Impeachment is to determine if the President committed a "high crime or misdemeanor". If he did, then he is removed from office even if a beloved, wildly popular, President.

"Presidential elections" and "presidential impeachment" are completely separate concepts in the Constitution.

TV news confuses many by conflating the two. And, people preparing campaigns to impeach Trump before he took office confused many people as well because he could not have done anything yet before taking office.

  • "people preparing campaigns to impeach Trump before he took office". Any group doing so was preparing ahead of time just in case (and showed shockingly little faith in HRC). – RonJohn Dec 21 '19 at 3:22
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    Re "...he could not have done anything yet before taking office", the Constitution does not say that the "high crimes and misdemeanors" necessarily have to be committed during the term of office. For instance, if it was discovered that the President had conspired to fake electon results, committed rapes, cheated on income tax, or done any of a multitude of other crimes, that should be grounds for impeachment. – jamesqf Dec 21 '19 at 4:41
  • @jamesqf You're correct that his "high crime" does not have to happen while he's in office. This is relevant because by the Spring, Deutsche Bank will release docs that might show Trump committed financial crimes long ago. If so, I think he will resign. – user312440 Dec 21 '19 at 6:58
  • @user322440 You think that he cares about any opinion except his own? – Graham Dec 22 '19 at 9:43
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    @James Reinstate Monica Polk: I suspect the authors of the Constitution would have expected people to understand the ordinary English meaning of the words at the time. Of course they didn't consider that the language would change over a couple of centuries, so that the obvious in 1789 misdemeanors meaning of "bad behavior" now means something like getting a speeding ticket. – jamesqf Dec 23 '19 at 3:49
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First, the premise of the question is wrong. Strictly speaking, the Electoral College decides who is to be president, not the public vote. This is dealt with in depth in many other questions on this site, starting with "Why was the Electoral College the system selected by the founding fathers?", so I will leave reading about it as an exercise and not deal with it in depth here.

The impeachment system used by the U.S. Constitution works the way that it does because it was taken from another system that worked this way.

It is taken from the U.K. Parliament (which I will use to refer to the Parliaments of the U.K.'s predecessor states), which has a system of this form and has had for almost six and a half centuries, since 1376. (The last impeachment in the U.K. Parliament was in 1848, but it has not necessarily fallen into desuetude for being unused for 171 years. There was a 162 year gap in impeachments between 1459 and 1621, whereupon Parliament merrily started using it again, with barely a blush of embarrassment.)

In the U.K. Parliament, the lower house (the House of Commons) passes a resolution and sends one of its members to formally inform the upper house (the House of Lords) that an impeachment has been made, and (then) the lower house approves and delivers Articles of Impeachment to the upper. The Lords holds a trial, with managers sent from the Commons to conduct it. The accused can present evidence and summon witnesses, and the Commons managers demand a ruling from the Lords upon their Articles. The Lords, operating with a special presiding officer if a Lord is themself on trial, either dismiss or pass the Articles by a vote. If passed, the Commons then has the opportunity, which it can decline, to demand judgement be rendered upon the accused.

Much of this may seem very familiar to those looking at U.S. impeachment proceedings.

However, like some other aspects of the U.S. Constitution, the Framers constructed it their way in order to curb some of the egregious excesses of U.K. history. Some examples should make this clear:

  • In the U.K., pretty much anyone, except a member of the House of Commons (the Commons holding that its members are privileged against impeachment), can be impeached. In the U.S., only civil officers of the United States, and the President and Vice-President, may be impeached.
  • In the U.K., the impeachment proceedings are a criminal trial, and judgement has extended in some cases to banishment and sometimes even execution. In the U.S., the only allowed outcome is removal from office, and optionally a bar to holding office again. Criminal matters are required to go through the criminal courts, with all of the ordinary rights of the accused in criminal matters in place.
  • In the U.K., even members of the House of Lords itself have been impeached. In the U.S., the procedure for removing a Senator is expulsion, not impeachment.
  • In the U.K., some people languished for years in prison awaiting the Lords to schedule their impeachment trials. At the start of the Parliament under James 2 in 1685, there were petitions from three Lords who had had impeachments hanging over them, untried, since 1678. In the U.S., although the Constitution is mute on the subject of rights in an impeachment trial, Amendment 6 only talking about criminal trials, the general political principle that people have a right to a speedy trial would no doubt be applied far more vigorously.
  • In the U.K., although the Crown could not prevent impeachment proceedings from happening by issuing a preëmptive pardon, which was attempted in the case of Lord Danby, it was held that the Crown could afterwards pardon a person who had been judged guilty. The Commons also has what amounts to a pardon power, as it has held that the Commons can decide not to request judgment from the Lords, and the Lords may not proceed to judgment on its own initiative. In the U.S., the Present is denied the ability to pardon impeachment convictions.

Further reading

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    @JdeBP The premise of the question is not wrong. – hmedia1 Dec 21 '19 at 19:02
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It's not clear that a [mandatory] public say would make any easier removing a president. I'm aware that Romania has such a provision in their constitution, but impeachment over there failed twice (2007, 2012) even though their Parliament was for it.

Arguably, it's not all that different from waiting for elections... mkay it's a perhaps a sort of early elections... without any counter candidate.

I suppose in the US if you bypassed the Electoral College and had a direct referendum for impeachment instead, results can be different than in the presidential election under the current system... but then you might as well eliminate the College to begin with.

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What you are asking about is, more or less, a special election to recall the President.

During the populist wave of the late 1800s, a number of cities and states instituted rules for the recall of elected officials, but that movement never reached the Federal government. (It was about this time that the Senate changed from being selected by state legislatures to being popularly elected. Direct democracy was fairly limited when the US Constitution was written.)

In practice, recall elections are mostly about popularity, and impeachment (rarely used for Presidents, but occasionally used for Federal judges) is about criminal or unethical behavior. Not at all the same thing.

1

One tricky issue is how the public could trigger the removal of an elected representative (whether they're the President of the United States or anyone else). The public votes at times determined by the laws the government representatives have made (an election must be called for a specific date, or no later than a specific date since the last election). At that time they can vote for the sitting candidate to remain (if they're still eligible), or for a different candidate to take up the position.

One possible solution would be to allow a sufficiently sized petition to trigger a vote for removal. However, note that in the UK, a petition to revoke Article 50 (signalling the United Kingdom's intention to leave the European Union) had over 6 million signatures (the biggest one in the UK so far) and had no effect in terms of changing the United Kingdom's government's policy. The results of the referendum and the 2019 UK general election both seem to indicate that most British people want to leave the EU. A lot of people were very unhappy, 6 million of them so unhappy that they signed the petition. But ultimately they were still in the minority.

So letting the public decide when to hold a vote at will seems like a costly and bad idea, because those promoting the vote do not necessarily reflect the will of the majority. If it's too easy to trigger a vote, a lot of spurious elections could be called, wasting a lot of tax payers' money. If it's too hard to trigger a vote, it's undemocratic because people can't vote on issues that are important to them. Instead we have to trust that our representatives truly represent our wishes, and will vote the way we want in parliament. If a leader seems to be unfit for office, they can try to vote them out.

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Good answers above, which all come down to the idea that the rule of law is still relatively strong in the US, so it's really really hard to go around it. The US has a mechanism established in the law for removing people from office, and the public is inclined to follow that.

Other "popular" or "Peoples'"revolutions- Hungary, Poland, Egypt, Iran, China, US, etc which removed whole governments outside the rule of law- succeed only when the rule of law itself is weak, corrupt, and unpopular.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.1

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Strictly speaking, it's because the constitution explicitly states that the House has the sole power of impeachment, and the Senate has the sole power to try the impeachment.

Article I, Section 2: The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment. U.S. Const. art. I, cl. 8.

Article I, Section 3: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. U.S. Const. art. I, 3, cl. 6.

Like other answers here, I could suggest a few reasons why the above may in place

  • The two part process ensures bipartisanship between the members of congress. Left to a public vote, would make the votes of the members themselves insignificant. The time for the public to vote is in electing the people that represent them during the term of government.
  • The divisive nature of Impeachment warrants careful planning and adequate communication between all involved in proceedings.
  • The General Public don't have access to classified material, which could be relevant or critical.
  • The weight that a vote of this nature carries requires a series of structured hearings that would be logistically impossible to guarantee the public participate in whole.
  • Ensuring accuracy of the vote would be troublesome - especially surrounding allegations of tampering with elections.
  • Achieving a 2/3 vote would be troublesome.
  • A strong understanding of the constitution is needed.
  • The general public can't swear under oath.
  • The general public are influenced highly by the media.
  • It would be unfair to place the burden of Impeachment on the public. Matters of this nature are for the government they elected to take care of.

The final vote of whether or not to remove the sitting President is in the senate. This raises the level of confidence one requires to cast a vote of such great consequence, since a significant portion of those members would be voting against their own leader.

  • Is this an exact duplicate of your deleted post? – divibisan Dec 22 '19 at 20:30
  • @divibisan Not quite. Are you the DV ? Like to know what I said that's incorrect here. – hmedia1 Dec 22 '19 at 21:02
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    Nope, I’m not, I haven’t voted either way. But you should know that no one has an obligation to explain their votes, and deleting and reposting to avoid rep-loss from downvotes is tacky at best. I’m not attacking you – I just wanted to mention it since you’re new to posting on this site – divibisan Dec 22 '19 at 21:40
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Impeachment a is legal and political thing. Not all the voters are legal scholars. The Constitution clearly defines the requirements for impeachment

for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors

That means there has to be a crime or misdemeanor established, that is why the Senate trial starts after the House files for impeachment. I know the House democrats blurred the line between evidence and hearsay, but that is how it is in the Constitution. For that, you would need legal authority. That is also why a Supreme Court justice presides on the proceeding during the trail in the Senate.

  • You should know that "high crimes and misdemeanors” has a specific meaning here of “abuse of power", it does not require violation of a specific criminal statue. See this question for a more detailed explaination: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/48437/… – divibisan Dec 23 '19 at 19:22
  • There is no such thing as "specific meaning", or any of that. That is personal interpretation. There is a reason the impeachment is only in the House, but also goes to the Senate for trial, where a Supreme Court justice presides over proceedings, and unlike the House, due process is enforced. The House is just grand jury, scholars joke about those proceedings as "they can indict a ham sandwich", which is why there is trial there too. So you should read more about the impeachment process. It is not a political tool to undo elections. But to safe guard the office. – R J Dec 24 '19 at 1:37
  • Who said anything about undoing elections? You implied that the house must establish a crime or misdemeanor to impeach, which is false and unsupported by constitutional scholars. We’re in agreement that the point of impeachment is to safeguard the office by removing presidents that abuse its power - but that doesn’t require a specific crime to be committed. – divibisan Dec 24 '19 at 2:32
  • I did not imply anything. Please stick to the facts and do not attribute things I never said to me. I simple posted the requirements of impeachment in the Constituion. If you have not noticed, this impeachment is being used to undo elections. The democrats made it clear they are doing so, their own statements, and some of them even ran on that. Those are facts. I can quote some of them for you here, but that is beyond the scope of this thread and this question. – R J Dec 25 '19 at 0:49

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