Electoral College needs reform

April 04, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Did you see where a House special task force on election reform disbanded the other day because the Republicans denied the Democrats equal representation? The matter has been bounced to two regular House committees run by the Republicans, and Democrats have decided to hold a special inquiry of their own.

This is not surprising since they consider themselves the wronged party in the late unpleasantness in Florida. Most complaints of people being denied the right to vote came from minority groups who traditionally vote strongly Democratic.

Meanwhile, assorted other government and private bodies are planning hearings in various states to consider what needs to be done to avoid a repetition of the fiasco that wound up with the 5-4 anointing by the Supreme Court of a popular-vote loser to be president.

A blue-ribbon group headed by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter opened its review recently at the Carter Center for Conflict Resolution in Atlanta, which certainly qualifies as a proper venue.

Other groups will be delving into problems laid bare by the ballot inequities, allegations of racial intimidation, police strong-arming and voter disqualifications, and not only in Florida.

Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a member of the scrapped joint task force, says the Democratic group will be focusing on two areas -- violations of civil rights at the polls and the mechanical problems resulting from confusing ballots and counting procedures.

But what about the Electoral College, which in delivering the presidency to George W. Bush with only one electoral vote to spare overrode the 539,947 popular-vote margin for Al Gore, and only after the Supreme Court's conservative majority stepped in?

Mr. Hoyer says the Democrats will look into that too, but so far Congress has shown about as much interest in addressing this dinosaur as it is likely to cut its own pay. A bill introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa to reform the Electoral College is sitting in committee going nowhere. The bill would create a bonus of electors for the popular-vote winner sufficient to ensure his or her election.

Dismay over the Florida fiasco seems already to have died down, in part as a result of the good old American sense of fair play that says President Bush is in the Oval Office now, so why keep beating a dead horse?

That may be the way it's being looked at now. But history, which is not usually guided by fair play, is more likely to record what has happened as the winning candidate buying his party's nomination by hugely outspending his rivals and then being handed the presidency by a politically driven Supreme Court.

The Founding Fathers created the Electoral College to assuage concerns of the smaller states that the larger ones would dominate presidential selection. That concern still exists, but you have to wonder what the founders would have done had they known their creature would bring about election of a candidate other than the one a majority of voters said they wanted for president.

On other matters regarding presidential election, Congress has moved quickly to avoid in the future accidents that have happened. For example, the Constitution originally provided for each elector to cast two votes for president, and for the runner-up to become vice president -- with undesired consequences.

In 1796, the procedure produced a Federalist president (John Adams) and a Democratic-Republican vice president (Thomas Jefferson). And in 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr wound up in a tie, forcing the election into the House. Congress then amended the Constitution to give each elector only one vote and require separate election of president and vice president.

The Constitution also originally provided no means to fill a vacancy when a vice president died or resigned. After eight such vacancies occurred, Congress finally passed an amendment providing for replacements by presidential nomination.

Much more than butterfly ballots and chads, the real culprit in November was the Electoral College that denied the voters' will. Congress should bite the bullet and address squarely the latest accident waiting to happen -- that did happen, for the fourth time.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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