Electoral College Is Preferable to Alternatives

Posted November 1, 2004 at 3:07pm

If, as in 2000, the next president gets elected without winning the popular vote, there’ll be a renewed hue and cry to scrap the Electoral College. But, remembering campaign finance reform, let’s be careful about it.[IMGCAP(1)]

Change definitely would be in order — and probably already is — if a so-called “faithless elector” disregarded the judgment of his or her state’s voters and cast a ballot for someone else, making a difference in the outcome.

It’s possible, in a very tight election, that electors could be bribed, threatened or importuned to “exercise their own judgment”—for instance, to ensure that the popular vote winner got the presidency.

To prevent that possibility, it’s probably a good idea that the states make electors’ votes automatic. Doing away with them entirely would require a constitutional amendment, but legislatures could impose automaticity.

But if 2004 produces a repeat (or a reverse) of the 2000 situation, the demand for wholesale scrapping of the Electoral College could well reach critical mass. Polls on the subject indicate that substantial majorities of voters favor abolition and adoption of a direct popular vote system of electing the president.

After Al Gore lost the presidency despite his 535,000-vote victory in the popular vote, Democrats introduced constitutional amendments in Congress, but Republicans never held committee hearings on them.

The closest the nation came to abolishing the Electoral College came in the aftermath of the 1968 election, when George Wallace’s third-party candidacy almost denied Richard Nixon a majority, which would have thrown the election into the House.

Even though Wallace secured 46 electoral votes, Nixon still managed to win the election. But the situation was close enough — requiring a shift of just 60,000 votes in certain states — that the House approved a constitutional amendment calling for direct election. Nixon even endorsed it. But it was filibustered to death in the Senate.

If President Bush or John Kerry wins the popular vote but loses the presidency this year, it’s almost certain that Congress would revisit the Electoral College. While this would be only the fifth instance of a mixed result in U.S. history, two “misfires” in a row would make consideration of reform inevitable.

Direct election, however, would be the wrong way to go. In a hotly contested race with a razor-thin margin — as in 2000 and maybe in 2004 — demands for a recount wouldn’t be confined to Florida or other states where the vote was especially close. Rather, every ballot box in the country would have to be reopened to ensure that the count was accurate. Also, charges of voter irregularity anywhere in the nation could engender outcome-delaying rancor.

Another possible fix that would not require Congressional action or a constitutional amendment would be national adoption of the Maine/Nebraska system in which electoral votes are allocated on a winner-take-all basis by Congressional district.

But, this system, too has deep flaws. It would have resulted in a victory by Nixon over John Kennedy in 1960 and it would have resulted in electoral vote ties in 1968, 1992 and 1996, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. And Bush would have won in 2000, anyway.

Moreover, as University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato points out, the district plan “would encourage state legislatures to play even more games with redistricting than they already do. You’d have Republican-leaning states with Democratic legislatures gerrymandering to give their nominee the advantage, and vice versa.

“It would be more incentive for the parties to draw districts that limit competition. What we need is more competition.”

Indeed, my recommendation for election reformers is to shift their energies from campaign finance to promoting creation of an Iowa-style independent redistricting commission in every state, charged with ensuring that Congressional districts are compact, contiguous and as competitive as possible, encouraging candidates to appeal to voters across party lines.

An appealing alternative to direct election or the district system for the presidential vote is national adoption of the system proposed this year in Colorado: awarding each state’s electoral votes in proportion to its popular vote.

The idea has lost favor in Colorado because it would make the state less important to the candidates. But applied nationally, that disadvantage would vanish.

The Colorado system would keep some of the advantages of the Electoral College, such as encouraging federalism, while also forcing candidates to compete nationally, and not merely in eight to 10 battleground states. Presumably, it would also encourage turnout across the country, as minority-party voters in “safe” states would see more reason to go to the polls.

The counter-argument is that the candidates would still concentrate their time and money — this time, in the most-populous states, hoping for marginal advantages in New York, California and Texas — and would ignore rural states like Iowa and Minnesota in the process.

American Enterprise Institute scholar and Roll Call contributor Norman Ornstein says nationalizing the Colorado proposal “would be a nutty system. It’s not the electoral college and it’s not direct voting. It’s like taking the back end of a donkey and the front end of a zebra and calling it a horse.”

Both he and Sabato also think there’d be a messy transition, with some states adopting one system and others a different one, confusing voters and politicians.

Both experts favor eliminating “faithless electors,” and Ornstein says that Congress might consider a “bonus plan” under which the winner of the nationwide popular vote got extra electoral votes.

Sabato, though, cautions against change. “Remember campaign finance reform and the rise of 527s,” he said. “Lots of structural changes get enacted for idealistic reasons and good intentions and end up having unintended consequences. I think the Founding Fathers had it pretty right. They made some mistakes, but it’s generally foolish to mess with what they invented. The Electoral College has generally worked the way they intended. It exaggerates the popular vote to give the winner a mandate. It respects the principle of federalism. It didn’t work in 2000, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.”

Let’s hope it’s an exception not soon repeated, especially this year.