Cheers for the Electoral College

GEORGE F. WILL

April 19, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHILNGTON — Washington. -- Ross Perot's embryonic presidential candidacy is rekindling interest in the election of 1824 -- or, strictly speaking, of 1825.

Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) worries about a "constitutional catastrophe," his odd description of the constitutional procedure for coping with the remote possibility that no candidate will win an electoral vote majority. Mr. Glickman, his lucidity crippled by his apprehension, says, "The election could be thrown into the Electoral College and could be thrown into the House of Representatives thereafter."

Steady, congressman. All elections are "thrown into the Electoral College." Thank God -- or the Founders; much the same thing to me -- for the Electoral College.

If November's popular vote does not produce an electoral vote majority for anyone, the House will select a president from among the top three electoral vote winners, each state's delegation casting one vote.

If that happens early in 1993, litigious liberals will ask the Supreme Court to declare the Constitution unconstitutional. They will say the Court's "one man, one vote" ideology -- all votes must be of equal weight -- forbids Wyoming's delegation of one having weight equal to California's 52. But the House can select a president constitutionally, as it did on Feb. 9, 1825.

In 1824, there were four candidates -- Gen. Andrew Jackson, Speaker Henry Clay, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Treasury Secretary William Crawford. Of the 4 million white males eligible to vote, 365,863 (8 percent) did. Jackson got 38,149 more popular votes than runner-up Adams.

Clay finished fourth and so was out of contention in the House process. Then his presidential prospects were forever blighted by accusations of a "corrupt bargain" when he organized the House's selection of Adams and became Adams' Secretary of State. The House process was not pretty. For example, the man who cast Missouri's vote sought Adams' reassurance that particular printers would get government business in Missouri.

Since 1825, there have been developments. Now there is a two-party system. And there is the winner-take-all allocation of states' electoral votes, a custom that bolsters the two-party system.

Another Glickman anxiety concerns something that could happen even in any two-candidate contest. It is that one candidate might win an electoral vote majority while another is winning a majority or plurality of popular votes. That may have happened in three of the 42 elections for which we have popular vote totals, since 1824. One was in 1824. Perhaps two others were 1876 (Hayes with 47.95 percent beat Tilden with 50.97) and 1888 (Harrison with 47.82 percent beat Cleveland with 48.62). There is uncertainty because fraud on both sides probably involved more votes than the margins of victory.

But even when the electoral and popular vote winners are different, it is excessive to say the "national will" has been frustrated. On such occasions the nation's will is unemphatic.

If the Electoral College were abolished in favor of direct popular election, it would be theoretically possible for a candidate to win all of Alaska's 306,264 registered voters, lose all the other states by an average of 6,250 votes, and still win the popular vote by 14. But let's think about probabilities, not mere possibilities. The Electoral College system probably will remain the world's most successful method of picking a chief executive.

The 42 elections since 1824 have produced 15 presidents with mere pluralities, not majorities, of popular votes. But only four times has the winner been under 45 percent. They were 1824, before the party system evolved; 1860, when the nation was crumbling and Lincoln won with 39 percent; 1912, when a protean force, Teddy Roosevelt, split the Republicans and Wilson won with 41.8; 1968, when George Wallace helped hold Nixon to 43.4.

Even when the popular vote margin is wafer-thin, the winner-take-all electoral vote allocation tends to produce a winning margin that looks like national decisiveness. The Electoral College system does make possible the improbability that Mr. Glickman calls a "catastrophe." But the system bolsters the two-party system by discouraging independent candidacies that splinter the electorate. It generates moderate mandates for parties that seek a broad consensus through coalitions and accommodations.

The Founders wanted not just majority rule, they wanted rule by majorities of a particular character: moderation. Not being primitive men, the Founders did not aim for primitive majoritarianism.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

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