Stateline Story

Time To Uninvent The Electoral College

  • December 13, 2000
  • By Stateline Staff

"I'm sorry I ever invented the Electoral College" -- Al Gore.

Springing up on my e-mail screen hours after the Supreme Court lowered the boom on Florida recounts, the apocryphal quote from our Veep does more than fit the week. It reminds us the problem isn't really Gore nor George W. Bush -- whos surprised if politicos fish for the last vote, or would like to expunge the other guy's?

Nor is it the problem, ultimately, the courts. Nor county vote clerks. Nor chads. Nor the Florida Legislature.

The problem is the electoral college.If the college didn't exist, we'd have had a winner weeks ago -- Al Gore, because he did in fact run some 318,000 votes ahead of Bush nationwide.Alternatively, the candidates might have switched campaign tactics, looking for popular votes instead of concentrating on key states, and Bush might have won fair and square.

Either way, Florida's ballot irregularities would be a minor footnote. Foreigners wouldn't be scoffing at us. Presidential transition wouldn't be in question. The Supreme Court wouldn't have ventured into a partisan bog, undermining Americans belief in the integrity of law.

Mathematically, under a simple direct vote plan, the chances are infinitesimal that any of us, in our lifetime, would see a national popular vote even approaching the hairbreadth difference in Florida this year. Why? Because a national vote pool of 100 million is so vast.

But keep the electoral college and any close-fought election will produce a handful of excruciatingly close individual state outcomes, some tiny margin(s) capable of deciding the presidency.

This is the trap we must get out of. Even in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, some of the most brilliant delegates -- James Madison, Gouveneur Morris and James Wilson among them -- were arguing for electing the president by direct vote of the people instead of Congress or intermediate electors.

They lost -- because small states and slave holding states insisted, because pure "democracy" was feared, and because some delegates couldn't imagine voters in a far flung, fledgling nation knowing candidates from outside their own region.

Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry -- later to become notorious as father of the legislative "gerrymander" -- argued a direct vote would be "radically vicious," that "the people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men."

Personally, I prefer the counsel of Madison, who argued that direct election would be best, because "the president is to act for people, not the states."

Of course it is fair to ask: Do we need electoral-college like device to prevent the eclipsing of states -- especially the small ones?

A first reply: Rarely in American history have small states, as a group, lined up on major issues against large ones.

Second: small states are already thoroughly neglected in presidential elections-- especially if they're considered "safe." Dick Gardner, head of the Idaho Rural Partnership, writes: "Here in Idaho there was no Presidential campaign this year, except for what we read in the papers. No dollars wasted on a safe Republican state. When I traveled this fall to swing states, it was like visiting another country where an election was transpiring."

It was a great senator from a lightly populated state -- Montana's Mike Mansfield -- who settled the small state argument for me. "The principal constitutional safeguards of the federal system," Mansfield noted, "are the House of Representatives, key to the protection of district interests, and the Senate, key to the protection of state interests." But the presidency, Mansfield argued, has evolved into the principal political office for safeguarding the interests of all the people in all the states.

Mansfield's conclusion: all Americans should be equal in electing him (or her).

Yet arguments for the electoral college -- even in the midst of the current debacle -- keep being raised. Example: a charge that a single national vote pool would induce vote-hungry candidates to pander to special interest constituencies, from gun owners to environmentalists, especially in big population centers.

So? Would that be worse than today's pandering to opinions of focus groups in a handful of swing states? Isn't the most powerful positive message imaginable that every American's vote, from white to brown to black, in large and small states alike, is worth pursuing -- because every vote counts equally?

The direct vote's not some latter-day gimmick. Since 1816, its enjoyed a succession of top-notch congressional supporters including Andrew Jackson (Tenn.), Henry Cabot Lodge (Mass.), Hubert Humphrey (Minn.), Estes Kefauver (Tenn)., Birch Bayh (Ind)., Everett McKinley Dirksen (Ill.), and Margaret Chase Smith (Maine).

In the last major reform push -- in the 60s and 70s -- the League of Women Voters, the American Bar Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce all agreed. Polls, likewise, have shown strong, consistent public support for a direct vote.

Because politicians refused to change, we're now in an election debacle beyond our worst nightmares.

When we wake up, let's change.