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The Electoral College
November 09, 2000

Our system of electing presidents isn't perfect. And we can change it. It's been changed before.

But let's make sure the change is for the better.

Right now the complaint is that it looks like Bush might win the presidency in the electoral college, even though Gore probably has a slightly larger popular vote.

The first question to ask is: Would the people who are howling about how awful this is be howling just as loudly if the situation were reversed, and Gore were the electoral college victor while Bush had more votes? In other words, is it the system or the outcome that they hate?

The system that we now have is not direct popular election of the president and was never intended to be.

The electoral college is set up so that the president of the United States is elected by the vote of the people state by state.

Each state, no matter how small, gets at least three electoral votes. On the surface, this means that a voter in Wyoming has a much larger say in the presidential election than a voter in California.

But because the electors for almost all the states are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, in a close election an individual voter in a big state has far more influence.

Florida is the obvious example. It's going to come down to a few thousand, maybe even a few hundred votes. In a small state, all that would be at stake would be three electors. In Florida, those few-hundred voters are enough to swing twenty-five electoral votes, and those twenty-five electors will, in the end, bestow the presidency.

What a wacked-out system, right? Why not one voter, one vote? That's more fair, right?

Maybe. In the best of all possible worlds.

But this is the real world. And in the real world, you have to deal with human error, divisiveness, and fraud, and devise a system that minimizes these tendencies in order to have a president who believably represents the whole country -- and an election process that does not destroy the country in the process of electing him.

Localized Crises. Here's one immediate benefit of the electoral college: It is only Florida where a recount is going on, because, of the states with excruciatingly close votes, only Florida has enough electors to be worth worrying about.

Imagine the chaos and uncertainty if we were having a national recount right now.

Minimized Fraud. Right now, there's an incentive for election fraud only in states where the vote will be close.

The vote for Bush in Idaho and Gore in Massachusetts, for instance, was a foregone conclusion. There was no reason to try to "lose" ballots or cast votes on behalf of dead people or intimidate or bribe voters.

In most states, once you have a comfortable majority it doesn't matter how many more votes you rack up for the winner, he'll get no more electors -- and no fewer -- than the state's total.

But if we had a direct popular vote, then there would be a powerful incentive to pile up bigger and bigger votes for "our" candidate in areas where he is strong, in order to offset the majorities the opponent will rack up in other, more benighted regions.

Protecting Minority Voters. The electoral college also helps protect easilyidentifiable minority voters from being intimidated at the polls.

The Democrats this year chose to ran a panicked race-baiting campaign among African-American voters, despite -- or because of -- the fact that Bush is the Republican candidate most committed to opening that party to blacks and serving their interests.

Gore and his supporters went into black churches in black-majority areas and tarred Bush as the anti-Christ. That's a viable strategy only in areas where African-Americans are in control of their voting precincts.

In a direct popular election, this might very easily have led to backlash, as opponents attempted to counter a heavy black turnout by whipping up white racism and by intimidating black voters in areas where they are in a minority.

Certainly there's plenty of history to suggest that this could and would happen -- I've seen enough of Jesse Helms in North Carolina to know how white-racist campaigns are run these days. And as feelings ran higher and higher in a direct election, only a fool could doubt that intimidation and violence against blacks would have erupted in places where blacks are more isolated, in a desperate effort to counter those big Gore votes in places where blacks are in a majority.

Instead, the electoral college muted racial divisiveness by confining it to the areas where Gore was actually doing his race-baiting. Why? Because there was no reason to attempt to intimidate black voters in states where the black vote was irrelevant to the outcome. Mississippi and Idaho were going to cast their electors for Bush no matter what the black turnout was.

In a direct popular election, however, keeping black voters from the polls would have an effect on the outcome of the voting, and the temptation to counter Democratic race-baiting with equally repugnant racist strategies would have been widespread.

Ironically, even as the electoral college protects African-American voters in most of the country, it also magnifies their electoral power in large states where the urban black population can make the difference in a close election. In the electoral college system, groups that vote in blocs and are concentrated in particular localities have influence far beyond their numbers -- for instance, Jews in New York, African-Americans in most city centers, Mormons in Utah and Idaho. With direct popular election of the presidency, these blocs would lose this disproportionate influence. The Jewish vote, for instance, would amount to no more than the total number of Jewish voters, whereas right now the Jewish vote is vital to those who want New York's electors.   FOOTNOTE

A Ceiling on Regional Peculiarities. The electoral college guarantees that a president's support must come from many states. One region cannot elect a president against the will of other regions of the country.

Many decades ago, when the Solid South racked up ridiculous one-party totals -- elections with eighty and ninety percent of the vote for the Democratic candidate in some states -- the most that their candidate could receive was the total of each of those states' electoral votes.

Sure, that could be thought of as "thwarting the will of the people." But it also kept the South's attitudes on race in those bad old days from having even more influence on national elections than they already had.

Without the electoral ceiling, regional resentments could be even more intense. Right now, with the South solidly Republican in most presidential elections, every close victory could be blamed, by the losers, on "excessive" votes in regions where one party has a lop-sided majority. The losers would feel that the voters in that region forced an unwanted president on them, and resentments would seethe.

Of course, with the electoral system the map certainly seems to emphasize regionalism, with pretty coherent swathes of one-party dominance broken only by, say, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

But in fact the electoral map has those exceptions, and in the elections of the '90s, we saw the Solid South broken up -- one party did not rule the region. Furthermore, the electoral system maintains a rational balance. To counter the Solid South in its one-party days, opponents never had a reason to rack up similarly impressive majorities elsewhere. A majority of 51 percent in New Jersey was enough to counter a majority of 90 percent in Georgia.

Encouraging Local Campaigning. The electoral college system requires candidates to visit many states and address the needs and interests of the people in different regions, including areas that are fairly rural or cities that aren't all that large. It also compels candidates to think about bloc minorities in swing states.

With direct popular election, candidates would be much wiser to spend their time and money in key media markets. Campaigns would be conducted almost entirely on television or in events staged for a national audience. The costs would be, if anything, even higher.

Preventing Fragmentation. Opponents of the electoral college think one of its worst features is the way it stifles third parties, but in fact that is one of its greatest successes.

All you have to do is look at Europe, with their proliferation of parties. Italy -- there's a model for you! But even in countries with reasonable stability, small parties can hold governments hostage -- just look at the absurdly disproportionate influence of far-right-wing parties on Israeli politics, for instance.

Because the electoral college makes the influence of almost all third parties disappear from the electoral map, it usually forces most dissenting groups to try to make their changes within the framework of an existing party. The conservative takeover of the Republican Party and the liberal takeover of the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s are a case in point. Minority viewpoints were heard. Coalitions were formed and compromises were made.

Without the electoral college, these movements would almost certainly have emerged as a proliferation of new parties, and during those tumultuous decades it is not at all unthinkable that five or six or more parties might have emerged, none of them with anything like a mandate to rule.

Instead, because of the electoral college, the coalitions have to be formed within the major parties, before the election, so that by the time the election rolls around, it is a choice between fully developed coalitions.

And yet the voices of third parties are heard. George Wallace in 1968 attracted enough union voters to give a wake-up call to both Republicans, who had never done well with unions, and Democrats, who had long taken them for granted. Ross Perot probably handed the election of 1992 to Clinton -- but he also guaranteed that both parties had to pay attention to the issues he raised.

Count on it -- if Gore ends up losing the electoral college vote, and it is blamed on Nader, the result will be -- and should be -- not "reform" of the electoral college, but rather the end of Clintonesque "triangulation." The Democratic Party will have to stop running on a Republican platform; it will have to move left to hold on to the Nader voters. Or, if the Democrats do not, some enterprising Republicans will discover that if they start talking and acting "green," they can form a new coalition of moral and economic conservatives plus hard-line conservationists -- a grouping that is far less unlikely than, say, the FDR coalition of southern racists and northern liberals.

The electoral college does not defeat third-party concerns in the long run; it merely helps eliminate the chaos that multiple parties have caused in other countries.   FOOTNOTE

The Useful Illusion of a Mandate. This year, regardless of whether Bush or Gore ends up with more popular votes than the other, the fact is that neither candidate "won." Both candidates got less than a majority of the popular vote. Even though the Green, Libertarian, Reform, and other parties got negligible percentages of the vote, the race between Bush and Gore was close enough that no one received a majority, and therefore nobody won.

This has happened more often than we allow ourselves to remember. In 1992, for instance, and in 1968, 1960, and 1948, third-party candidates drew enough votes that the "winner" in the electoral college did not, in fact, win the election. No candidate had a majority. Most voters preferred somebody else to the "winner."

Throughout American history, in fact, we have commonly had presidents that most voters did not choose.

But because of the electoral college, we have, since 1824, had presidents that were chosen by a majority of the states, weighted by population. Bush, if he wins the electoral college while getting fewer popular votes than Gore, still will have a majority -- more than fifty percent -- of the electoral votes. Going by popular vote, neither candidate has a majority of any kind.

There are only three main solutions to this problem, if we switch to direct popular election of the president:

  1. Don't require a candidate to have a majority. Getting more votes than anybody else is enough. Of course, the result will be, at least in some election years, presidents who "win" with only 40%, 30%, or -- if enough party fragmentation occurs -- even laughable percentages like 20% or less of the popular vote. And instead of having major recount efforts once or twice a century, we'll have them in most elections. How is that better than what we have?

  2. Hold run-off elections when one candidate fails to get a majority (or a large enough plurality). In practical terms, this means that we will almost always have a runoff election if we demand that a candidate have a majority to win, or if we set the threshold for a runoff at some lower percentage (if no candidate gets at least 40%), then we're right back to having most presidents "win" with less than a majority. That means two presidential campaigns, not one, with candidates having to hold back at least some money for the run-off campaign.

  3. If nobody gets a majority of the popular vote, throw the election into the House of Representatives as the Constitution now requires when no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote. Had this been our system in the past, Nixon would never have been president -- but neither would Lincoln. Truman would not have had his second term. Wilson would not have been elected in 1912, either -- it would almost certainly have been a second term for Taft. And once it became clear that the House of Representatives would be the determiner of many if not most presidential elections, all congressional elections would be about the presidency, not about the individual candidates for the House of Representatives.

Though I think run-off elections would be the best of these three solutions, it remains my opinion that the best solution by far is to leave the electoral college as it is.

Modifying the Electoral College. And if that becomes politically impossible and some change is required, I believe we still should keep a modified form of the electoral college to preserve some, if not all, of the advantages it brings us.

The most obvious modification is to eliminate the actual electors, to avoid the temptation of the kind of dishonesty and betrayal that Gore's people are actually calling for right now, as they hint that a few electors should change their vote in order to "comply with the will of the people." This is such an evil idea (if you doubt me, just imagine how Gore's people would howl if the situation were reversed and it was the Republicans calling for electors to change their votes) that the possibility of it should be eliminated. And those who call for it should remember that the will of the majority of the American people was not to elect Gore, either. So if a Republican elector changed his vote, he would be betraying the voters of his own state in order to vote for yet another candidate that most voters, nationwide, chose not to vote for.   FOOTNOTE

The more important modification would be to keep the electoral college but award each states electors proportionally. This will still serve to freeze out all but the strongest third parties and help keep elections out of the House of Representatives. Voting fraud still wouldn't be much use in most places, but because we would have several thresholds -- each time the voting percentage might swing a single elector -- some might feel even more incentive to cheat.

And in a close election like this one, there would still be no guarantee that the electoral college would favor the candidate with the plurality of the popular vote. We would lose many of the advantages of the system we now have, and would not gain much assurance of improvement.

The fact is, the electoral college might seem unwieldy and undemocratic -- but when you examine the alternatives, the electoral college starts looking pretty good.

Whoever wins this election should win by the rules that were in place when the election began. No matter who wins it, this was a razor-thin election and nobody has a "mandate." Nevertheless, whoever is elected President by these rules is President, just as surely as if he won by a popular landslide, and if the losing candidate really loves America, he will do all he can to ensure a smooth and confident transition to the new presidency. Any other course will only embolden America's enemies and deepen the divisions among the American people.

Tilden, Cleveland, and Nixon. In 1960, Richard Nixon had a pretty solid case for charging widespread voter fraud in Illinois and Missouri, which cost him the presidency that, in all likelihood, he might have legitimately claimed. But instead of demanding recounts and throwing the country into turmoil, Nixon ensured a peaceful transition to Kennedy's presidency.

Nixon, of course, did not have a plurality of the popular vote to buttress any claim he might have made to electoral victory. Democrat Grover Cleveland, however, had a clear majority of the popular vote. He was even the incumbent President, the first Democrat elected after years of Republican domination of White House and Congress after the Civil War crippled the Southern-dominated Democratic Party. Yet he made no fuss, but stepped aside and allowed a peaceful transition to the administration of Republican Benjamin Harrison.

Even more remarkable, though, was the statesmanlike behavior of Samuel Tilden. In the election of 1876, Democrat Tilden won the popular vote against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, a remarkable feat so soon after the Civil War. He won in the electoral college, too. But in some of the newly reconstructed states of the South, there was widespread intimidation and violence by white Democrats against black voters, who were in those days solidly Republican (for obvious reasons). Thus Tilden's popular majority was suspect, and when challenges were brought against the Democratic electors in several states because their election had been obtained by fraud, the result was, after a long and complicated saga, that strict party-line votes resulted in enough electors being taken from Tilden and awarded to Hayes that Hayes won the presidency.

We could argue all day about whether the racist electoral abuses in the South justified the highly politicized overturning of the election results in those states. What matters for us today is that throughout the long nightmare, when it all ended Tilden did what Cleveland and Nixon both did. For the good of the country, he sincerely urged his supporters to accept the outcome and submit to a president that they felt had stolen the election.

As far as I know, Gore has no case for claiming that Bush stole the election, though it is unfortunate that the pivotal state turned out to be the one governed by Bush's brother. The whining about "unfairness" can be played out on both sides -- certainly Bush has just as much grounds to complain about the utterly biased press that, in the final days of the campaign, suppressed the scandal of Gore's signature on a secret illegal treaty even as it gave great publicity to Bush's irrelevant 24-year-old DWI arrest. Bush supporters can also seethe in resentment at Gore's racist campaign in the black churches, which, were the situation reversed (if Bush had gone to white churches and tried to terrify white voters about the dire consequences to their race if Gore won the election), would have resulted in resounding vilification by every newspaper in the country.   FOOTNOTE

What is needed is for statesmen who put America first. If the Florida recount goes against Gore, the only decent thing for him to do is follow the example of Tilden and Cleveland and Nixon, and do his best to calm the situation and ensure a smooth, peaceful transition for his opponent.

And anyone who knows anything about George W. Bush knows that if the election does slip away from him in Florida, he will do precisely that: Help America make peace after a rancorous election.

Indeed, if our candidates were all statesmen, then almost any system of electing our president would work. And when our candidates are not statesmen, but care only about getting power any way they can, then no system of electing our president will work.

Already we've had eight years of a president who claims credit for everything good, breaks any promise, tells any lie, and evades the consequences of all his misdeeds.

The fact that Gore actually won a plurality of the popular vote is a profoundly disturbing message about the American people and the leaders of public opinion.

The fact that Bush has made the race as tight as it is, despite Gore's having the advantages of incumbency, a strong economy, and a relentlessly supportive press establishment that downplayed all the issues that might have hurt him, is an encouraging sign that perhaps at least some Americans are able to resist the "wisdom" of the press and the lure of complacency.

But as much as I dread the idea of a Gore presidency, I dread even more the subversion of the Constitutional system that has worked so well for so long. No matter how the Florida recount turns out, the loser must place the good of America first and accept the results of the election according to the constitutional system. Any effort to try to overturn or "fix" the electoral college outcome will be far more destructive to America than any problems likely to result from a victory by the "wrong" candidate.

Because in contrast with Tilden, Cleveland, and Nixon, we have plenty of examples of candidates who think their country needs them so badly that the lawful results of elections should be overturned. You know the names: Marcos, Suharto, Pinochet, and many others in many countries.

None in the U.S., thank God. At least, none so far.


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