Paul Greenberg

How strange: Legislators here in Arkansas, or at least those in this state's House of Representatives, have just voted for a bill that would cast the state's six electoral votes for whichever presidential candidate won the nation's popular vote.

That's right: This state's delegates to the Electoral College would no longer follow the wishes of Arkansas voters. Instead, they'd go with whichever candidate got the most popular votes nationwide.

Can this bill be constitutional? Can a state legislature reverse the result of a federal presidential election within its borders? And why would the state's own legislature take away Arkansas' right to vote for a president, and just go with the rest of the country willy-nilly?

Arkansas doesn't ordinarily play a large part in presidential campaigns as it is. After all, larger states have a lot more electoral votes to cast than a small one like Arkansas. But why sacrifice what little influence a small state has? It's a mystery.

Yet this is happening all over the country, as states are asked to join an interstate compact pledging to support the winner of the national popular vote. If successful, this movement would render the Electoral College meaningless.

It's all being done in the name of One Person, One Vote! Nice slogan. But it's no substitute for serious thought about the Electoral College and the role it plays in the complex American constitutional system.

The Electoral College is part of a delicate set of constitutional checks and balances. Change one part and the whole mechanism could be thrown off. The current electoral system means that a presidential campaign has to be waged nationally by large, well-organized parties-usually two-rather than by a bunch of competing individual candidates. Or by a dozen or so small parties slugging it out to see which one can win a bare plurality.

With the Electoral College in place, the winner has got to get enough votes in enough states to claim a majority of the electors-not just a popular plurality. That means organizing large, national parties, which is how the country's two-party system came about. Take away the Electoral College, and you take away a prominent inducement for having a two-party system.

The idea of electing the president of the United States by popular vote may sound unexceptionable in theory-One Person, One Vote!-but in practice it could be full of unintended consequences. The most troubling: What would happen to the two-party system? Right now, each party must achieve consensus in order to nominate a candidate who can appeal to the broad middle of the country, and so gain a majority of the Electoral College.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.