The crumbling case for the Electoral College

August 17, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- In the last days of the 2000 presidential campaign, the prospect loomed that one candidate would win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College, and some people were ready. "One thing we don't do is roll over," said a campaign aide. "We fight."

The plan was a massive blitz urging members of the Electoral College to vote with the will of the majority. That was what Republicans had in mind if George W. Bush won with the people but lost the presidency.

Things didn't turn out quite that way. But Republicans were onto something that only later dawned on Democrats: There is something wrong with a system that lets the second-place vote-getter claim victory.

As Al Gore jokes, "You win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category." Mr. Bush was the first president since 1888 to lose the popular vote. That's one reason he entered office with only 51 percent of Americans considering his victory legitimate.

The 36-day fight over Florida was just a symptom of the underlying problem. "If we selected presidents like we select governors, senators, representatives, and virtually every elected official in the United States, Al Gore would have been elected president -- no matter which chads were counted in Florida," notes George C. Edwards III in his new book, Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America.

But we don't select presidents by a simple vote of the people. We conduct elections in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and typically award candidates electoral votes only if they win an entire state. The overall popular vote is irrelevant. All that counts is the Electoral College, in which each state gets as many votes as it has members of Congress.

I wrote in defense of the Electoral College in 2000, but Mr. Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, has forced me to reconsider. Upon reconsideration, I think the critics have the better argument.

The rationales for the status quo don't stand up well to scrutiny. One is that we shouldn't mutilate the Framers' sacred design. But they had no real clue what they were doing.

Stanford historian Jack Rakove, the premier scholar of the Constitutional Convention, describes the Electoral College as a "hastily sketched system" that "was obsolete within a bare decade of its inauguration." The Founders rejected direct election because they thought voters would know very little about the candidates -- one of many expectations that was wrong.

Another claim is that this system upholds federalism and decentralization. In fact, no state government would find itself weaker without the Electoral College, because it confers no meaningful authority on state governments.

Nor does it protect small states, which are granted proportionally more votes than large ones. Residents of Delaware and Idaho have no discernible common interests merely because they live in small states. New York and Texas are both big states, but trust me, they don't feel a deep and special bond because of that. Americans vote on the basis of ideology, religion, race, economic concerns and the personal appeal of the candidates, not on some hazy "state" interest.

Most small states, in fact, get zero attention. During the 2000 general election campaign, says Mr. Edwards, only six of the 17 smallest states were visited by either presidential candidate. Many bigger ones also got shortchanged -- and are getting similar treatment this year.

Why? Because of the Electoral College. John Kerry will get millions of votes in Texas, but none of its electoral votes. No matter what Mr. Kerry does in California, he's almost guaranteed its electoral votes. Neither he nor Mr. Bush has any incentive to waste much time in those places. They focus instead on the few states where the outcome is in doubt. Under a direct election, by contrast, candidates would go where the votes are, giving most Americans actual exposure to the campaign.

If the Electoral College didn't exist, no one would invent it. It violates the central principle of our election system -- that every vote should count equally and that victory should go to the person with the most votes. And it produces no obvious compensating benefit.

We keep the Electoral College only because it doesn't frustrate majority will very often. If it did, we would get rid of it.

But if the will of the majority is what truly matters, we shouldn't elect the president under a system whose only function is to periodically rise up and deny the people their choice. After 2000, Democrats understand that. Republicans might want to consider a change before they get their own hard lesson.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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