Flunking the Electoral College?

Should the United States abolish or alter the Electoral
College system? If so, what should replace it?

12.18.00


Michael Nelson: End It

The Electoral College was no one's first choice at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Various delegates had all sorts of ideas about who should elect the president, including Congress, the people, the governors of the states, even a randomly selected group of legislators. Unable to agree on any of these, weary after three months of rehearsing the same old arguments, and racing toward adjournment, the convention appointed a committee to deal with presidential selection and other "postponed matters." From this committee sprang the Electoral College, a mechanism so odd and complicated that it skirted the convention's established lines of division. The delegates accepted the Electoral College mostly as a stopgap measure, to be replaced with something better once the new government was up and running. They knew that George Washington would be the first president no matter how that president was chosen.

It is also safe to say that the Electoral College is not the process for picking presidents that any constitutional convention would arrive at today if we were starting from scratch. Two centuries ago the idea of involving the voters only indirectly in elections was a familiar one. Most governors were chosen by their state legislatures, and no one thought it odd that U.S. senators would be elected the same way under the new constitution. Today, indirect election is strange bordering on perverse. Governors are chosen directly by the voters and, as a result of the Seventeenth Amendment, so are senators.

So why has the Electoral College endured? Not because of any strong arguments in its favor. Some traditionalists cite the federal principle as the best reason for keeping the Electoral College. The states, they argue, not just the people, should be involved in choosing the president. But surely the federal principle applies more appropriately to Congress, which represents us in our variety, than to the presidency, which represents us in our unity. Another standard argument for the Electoral College is that it localizes the problems that arise from close elections: Imagine the whole country as one big Florida in 2000. But the whole country wouldn't be Florida if presidents were chosen by the people in a national election. Direct election would surely be accompanied not by the existing hodgepodge of chads in this state and touch-screens in that one, but by a uniform system of voting that reflects the best technology.

The real basis for the Electoral College's endurance is less one of principled arguments than of special interest pleading, compounded by the inherent difficulty of amending the Constitution when the special interests themselves have to do the amending. The special interests include both the smallest states, which get a larger (but still tiny) voice in presidential elections than their populations would warrant, and the largest states, which under the electoral college occupy the center of the candidates' attention even more than they would if their votes weren't awarded in twenty- to fifty-four-vote clumps. Together, these states constitute many more than the 13 -- 1/4 plus one -- states that it takes to prevent a constitutional amendment from being ratified.

Michael Nelson is professor of political science at Rhodes College and editor and coauthor of The Elections of 2000, which will be published in March by Congressional Quarterly Press.



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Representative James Clyburn: Mend It

In light of the presidential election debacle, I believe it is time for our country to reconsider how the highest office in the land is won. Many political observers are calling for the end of the Electoral College. I think that is a bad idea. However, I do believe the current system must be redesigned to reflect the modern complexity of our nation.

For a long time, I have advocated changing our entire election method. My position has always been that winner-take-all elections trample on the variety of voices in our diverse country. Winner-take-all elections by their very nature mean that the highest vote getter wins, even if the margin of victory is only one vote.

The Founding Fathers were concerned about this scenario significantly enough to discount basing a presidential election solely on the popular vote. Instead they decided to implement an Electoral College method that uses each state's number of U.S. House and Senate members to determine the number of ballots each state casts in the Electoral College. However, winner-take-all is still at play here. Whoever wins the popular vote in the state, in turn gets all of its Electoral College votes. And that is true whether or not the highest popular vote getter wins by a margin of one vote or one million votes. That is the crux of the problem.

There are two states that have made an exception to this rule -- Maine and Nebraska. The legislatures in these states have determined that electors will be apportioned based on who wins each congressional district in the state. To me, this is a logical solution.

Let me explain how this scenario would work in South Carolina. We have eight electoral votes because we have six House seats in addition to our two Senate seats. Since the Senate seats are elected statewide, those two electoral votes should be cast for the presidential candidate who won the popular vote in South Carolina. Using this year's presidential campaign as an example, George W. Bush would receive those two votes. Then presidential votes would have to be examined by congressional districts. I am certain, even without having the exact numbers, that Al Gore won the Sixth Congressional District. Therefore, he would receive at least one electoral vote from South Carolina.

Using this method of selecting electors, Florida would not have become the winner-take-all, make-or-break state in this year's presidential election. A few hundred votes would not have been the difference between receiving all or none of its 25 electoral votes. Instead, 23 of those 25 votes would be divided up based on the outcome in each congressional district.

Having said that, I can't say for sure who would have won the 2000 presidential campaign under this scenario. I have not seen the break down of the race by congressional districts. Consequently, I am not making this argument because it may have resulted in a Gore victory. Rather this scenario represents the fairest reform of the Electoral College while holding true to the Founding Fathers' desire to avoid electing the president by popular vote.

I admit that such proposals have been introduced in Congress and failed. It is unlikely with such divided government as we have at this time that enough votes could be culled to pass a constitutional amendment to this effect and I don't believe we should. However, individual states have the right to determine how they select their Electoral College representatives. I urge South Carolina and other states to consider adopting the method used by Maine and Nebraska.

Representative James Clyburn is a Democrat from South Carolina's Sixth District.


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Walter Berns: Preserve It

There's no prospect that the Electoral College can be abolished. To abolish it would take a constitutional amendment. The amendment requires ratification by 3/4 of the states, and that means that 13 states could prevent ratification. The question then is whether 13 states have an interest in maintaining the Electoral College, and the answer to that is almost certainly yes. These are states with small populations but nevertheless real interests. The Constitution acknowledges those interests by giving them -- simply by virtue of the fact that they are states -- two United States senators and therefore, a minimum of three electoral votes.

But the Electoral College has advantages over every proposed substitute -- and particularly the substitute most frequently proposed, namely, direct popular election. Consider the fix we would have been in this year if instead of the Electoral College, we had a system of direct popular election. We would have had Floridas all over the country. We had the Florida situation because of the close popular vote in Florida, and we therefore had to recount every vote in Florida. In a system of direct popular election, we would have to recount every vote everywhere. This year, we did not bother to recount votes in California or New York or Texas because in the first two, Mr. Gore had a great majority of the votes, and in Texas, Mr. Bush had a great majority. But in a system of direct popular elections, every vote everywhere matters and therefore has to be counted, and if necessary recounted. This in itself is a case for retaining the system we now have.

In addition, however, there is what I think is the fact that in a system of direct popular election, there will be a proliferation of presidential candidates. The present system discourages what we call third party candidates. In direct popular elections, there would be no discouragement. Again, to reflect on our current situation, in a system of direct popular election, not only would we have had Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, but we would have had a serious effort by Gary Bauer, whose support in the country, I suspect, far exceeds that of Nader or Buchanan. Then in the very likely event that no one would get the majority of the popular vote, there would have to be a runoff, and that would lead to a situation where Gary Bauer, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan would begin to talk with the two major party candidates. The question would be, What would have to be offered them in exchange for their support? It is not unreasonable to suspect that one of the two major party candidates, and perhaps both, would offer Ralph Nader the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and Pat Buchanan the head of immigration; and what would Gary Bauer want, and what might he be offered? Perhaps control of nominations to the Supreme Court, Gary Bauer insisting on imposing the Roe v. Wade litmus test that only an anti-abortionist judges be appointed. Enough said.

Walter Berns is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Representative William Delahunt: End It

For years, most Americans have ignored the Electoral College as a harmless nuisance. Not any more. The collision between the electoral and popular vote is no longer just a historical curiosity. It's time to abolish the Electoral College, and to count the votes of all Americans in presidential elections.

This is about far more than any one candidate or the outcome of a particular election. At stake is public confidence in our electoral system.

Two centuries ago, the Constitutional Convention considered many ways to select the president of an emerging republic, from popular election to assigning the decision to the Congress. The Electoral College was a political compromise that reflected a basic mistrust of the electorate -- the same mistrust that denied the vote to women, African-Americans and persons who did not own property.

The Electoral College may or may not have made sense in 1787. But through 21st Century eyes, it is as anachronistic as the limitations on suffrage itself. Whether or not you like the results of a particular election, whether you voted for Bush or Gore or Nader, whether you live in Massachusetts or Montana, your vote should count.

Some defend the Electoral College because it carries the weight of constitutional authority. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I approach the prospect of amending the Constitution with extreme caution. But the 12th and 22nd Amendments have already altered the system designed by the framers for electing the president; and until ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, the U.S. Senate was elected not by the people, but by state legislatures.

For me, it is a straightforward proposition. If the Electoral College merely echoes the election results, then it is superfluous. And if it contradicts the voting majority, then why tolerate it?

It is a remarkable and enduring virtue of our political system that our elections are credible and decisive -- and that power changes hands in a coherent and dignified manner. Many other nations watch with envy as a U.S. president welcomes his successor, often a political adversary, to the White House.

The Electoral College threatens that stability. Even this election's crash civics course yields only a glimpse of the problems it can cause. Picture this: If Florida were won by a third-party or favorite son candidate, depriving any candidate of the required 270 electoral votes, the presidential election would be thrown into the House of Representatives.

That process would take months to resolve. The electors don't even cast their votes until December. It's another month until those votes are counted. And if a single candidate still lacked a majority, the nightmare would just be starting.

The nation would be rudderless -- caught between a lame-duck president and two or more potential successors. Even in sleepy colonial times, this would create enormous national anxiety. Given today's 24-hour media frenzy and America's superpower status in the modern world, the impact is almost unimaginable. From financial markets to foreign terrorists, an extended period of confusion is an open invitation for trouble.

The Electoral College is not worth these risks. For months, I have talked with congressional colleagues who shared my concern that this could be the year when the electoral vote contradicts the popular will. Now it is about to occur. For these reasons, my first act of the 107th Congress will be to introduce legislation to abolish the Electoral College outright.

There is no partisan edge to this undertaking. It would not affect the outcome of the election; in fact, I first proposed it when the pundits were predicting a popular vote win by Governor Bush. I will seek support from Republican, Democratic, and Independent colleagues. The ultimate beneficiary could be a candidate of any party.

I am under no illusion about the difficulty of enacting a constitutional amendment, which requires a congressional supermajority and ratification by two-thirds of the states. But now is the time to act -- while the sting of the contradiction is still fresh.

Historically, the Congress has debated Electoral College reform only when faced with urgent public concern about specific elections. The Senate held hearings in 1992, when it appeared the Perot candidacy might deadlock the Electoral College. After the three-candidate 1968 election, the House actually approved a direct-election amendment, but it fell victim to Senate filibuster.

Every other public official, from selectman to Senator, is chosen by majority vote. That's the way it's supposed to work in a democracy. For reasons both philosophical and practical, that's also how we should elect the president.

William Delahunt is U.S. Representative from the 10th Congressional District in Massachusetts.


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James R. Whitson: Preserve It

The little understood, yet widely vilified, Electoral College is the best system for electing a president in a country as large and diverse as the United States. It prevents a big city from being more powerful than several states combined. It protects minority interests and opinions from being silenced by a simple majority. It requires candidates to build a
national consensus by making their appeal as broad as possible, instead of pandering
to a geographic region or running up the vote in states favorable to them. And finally, it ensures the federal nature of our government that the founders intended.

The electoral college system prevents urban areas from overwhelming states in electoral clout. The total combined population of the 15 states of Alaska, Deleware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming is about 15.5 million. By comparison, the total combined population of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston is about 15.5 million.

In the most popular alternative to the Electoral College, a direct election, these four cities would have the same electoral power as all 15 states. The people of a single state have wide and varied needs and issues because of their wide and varied geography. But the cities would be given preferential treatment by the candidates because it would be less expensive and more efficient for them to spend their time there rather than travel throughout an entire state.

The electoral college system protects minority interests and opinions from being overpowered by a simple majority. Farmers, once a very influential constituency, now make up less than 4 percent of the population. Why would a candidate worry about this small group in a direct election? In the Electoral College system, since farmers do make up sizable parts of several states, their combined strength in a smaller pool of voters gives them more power. The same applies to minority opinions. For example, if 55 percent of the population is against abortion rights, and 45 percent are for them, a candidate
in a direct election need not address the concerns of the minority view -- he can win without them. However, in the current system, ignoring a national minority opinion won't work because many states will disagree with the national opinion. This forces candidates to at least acknowledge the concerns of the minority.

The electoral college system requires candidates to build a national consensus, rather than pad their lead in certain states or regions. In fact, this situation was averted in 1888 when Grover Cleveland based his campaign on one issue only popular in the South. He ended up barely winning the popular vote, but losing in the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison handily. It turns out Cleveland had run up his vote total in six southern states
where he garnered up to 65-80 percent of the popular vote. In the other 32 states
combined, he lost the popular vote! The Electoral College discourages candidates from pandering to one region at the expense of the rest of the country.

And lastly, the electoral college system maintains the power of the states
in our government. The Founding Fathers originally intended the federal and state governments to share power. They still do, but now the states have much less say in the federal government than they used to. In fact, as originally set up, the people only voted on the House of Representatives; the Senate was actually chosen by the state governments so the states had a direct say in what laws were passed. The 17th Amendment took the states out of the federal legislature and indirectly out of the federal judiciary (where they had a vote in the Senate on judicial appointments). By getting rid of the Electoral College, the states would lose their power over the third branch of the government, the executive branch.

James R. Whitson is editor of Presidentelect.org.



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