Loser could win again

If the 2000 fiasco is replayed this year, expect a strong push to change how we elect presidents.

Electoral College

Countdown To Election Day

October 24, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Don't look now, but the political stars might be aligning to put the candidate who loses the popular vote into the White House once again. This time around, though, it might be the Democrat taking advantage of the odd institution known as the Electoral College.

Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has been touting this scenario since spring: John Kerry takes the populous states that went for Al Gore in 2000 - that's where Gore piled up his 500,000-vote margin over George W. Bush - but in much tighter races. Bush racks up huge wins in that wide swath of red states he took in 2000. One state - Ohio or Florida - narrowly tips to the Kerry column, giving him more than the 270 electoral votes needed for victory but leaving him several hundred thousand behind Bush in the popular vote.

This isn't just a pipe dream - look at the poll numbers that show Bush edging ahead in the national tallies, while Kerry is getting stronger in the so-called battleground states.

FOR THE RECORD - A graphic accompanying a story on the Electoral College in Sunday's Perspective section listed an incorrect number of Electoral College votes that Vice President Al Gore would have received if the 2004 vote allocation had been in effect in 2000. Gore would have received 260 votes compared with George W. Bush's 278.
The Sun regrets the errors.

As Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said on CNN last week, "What really matters are the battleground polls. If you look at the red states, the margin for Bush has gone from eight to 12 points. If you look the blue states, the margin for Kerry is only eight points. But if you look at the battleground states - the purple states, if you will - Kerry is ahead by two to four points. So we don't care so much if we lose Utah by 40 points instead of 26 points."

Add up enough big Bush wins in states such as Utah (five electoral votes) and smaller-than-Gore margins in, say, New York (31 votes) and California (55), and you have the loser winning again.

If that happens, there will be real pressure to do something about the way we elect presidents.

"I confidently predict that if 2004 turns out to be the second election in a row where there is a disjunction between the electoral vote and popular vote, there will be significant movement to reform or perhaps even abolish the Electoral College," says William Galston, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I offer no predictions as to the success of that movement."

Schaller agrees. "The only chance that there will be a constitutional amendment to, say, move to a direct, national popular vote would be if we had back-to-back misfired elections," he says. "And even then, I would predict it would be hard to achieve the two-thirds thresholds in both chambers of Congress to be proposed, and even harder to gain assent from three-quarters of the states."

That's because the vast majority of the states are overrepresented in the Electoral College - just as they are in the Senate. So they would be diminishing their influence in the presidential election if they voted to do away with it. That's one reason the Electoral College has hung on, even though it has never worked as it was supposed to.

"None of the Founding Fathers wanted pure democracy when the country was founded," says Ted Widmer, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College. "There was this fear of people voting for the wrong candidates - only for their self-interest - unless there were enlightened people looking out for them.

"Electors were a stopgap designed to create a nice balance between stability and pure democracy," he says.

The number of electors from each state equals the total of its congressional delegation - the number it has in the House plus its two senators. The idea was that the people of each state would vote for fellow citizens they knew and respected, that each state's best and brightest would form the Electoral College. They would gather in Washington to peruse the country's presidential possibilities, selecting the next chief executive with care and deliberation.

"It instantly failed," says Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. The Framers did not anticipate - indeed, dreaded - the formation of political parties. That denied the college any notion of deliberation as electors were party regulars who voted for the candidates they were pledged to support.

The 12th amendment called for electors to vote for both a president and a vice president. But the tie-breaking machinery remained the same, meaning the House - with each state delegation getting one vote - chooses the president and the Senate the vice president. If the two bodies were in the hands of different parties, you could have a genuine split ticket at the top.

Look to Maine

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