Paul Greenberg

For about as long as some of us can remember, there have been proposals around to junk the Electoral College and find some other way to elect a president of the United States. Whether a new system should be devised was a national debate question when I was in high school, and that was a long, long time ago. Yet for all the dissatisfaction with the Electoral College over the years, no one has been able to sell the American people on an alternative.

The alternatives do change from time to time, and their very prolixity is another sign that devising a better system isn't easy.

How about a straight popular vote, winner takes all, no matter how slim his margin of victory? But that change could attract so crowded a field of presidential candidates that it might take only a small percentage of the votes cast to win. Would we really want a president elected with, say, only 20 percent of the vote?

OK, how about a Plan B? Why not have a run-off if the leading candidate got less than, say, 40 percent of the popular vote? (Which might have eliminated Abraham Lincoln in a run-off, since by the best guesstimates he got only 39 percent of the popular vote in 1860 yet a majority of the Electoral College.) The French have such a system -- and risk having their presidential run-off feature the two most extreme candidates, the many moderate candidates having split the moderate vote.

Then there was the proposal to elect the president by congressional district, but that approach wouldn't guarantee that the winner would have more of the popular vote nationwide, either.

This year's alternative to the Electoral College is to get states with a majority of the electoral votes to agree beforehand to cast them for whichever candidate polls the most votes nationally. Even if that candidate didn't carry all those states.

It would be hard to imagine a scheme that did more to destroy the integrity of the ballot. For it would give the winner of the popular vote nationally the electoral votes of states he didn't carry, overturning the will of the majority in those states. This plan isn't so much a reform as a legalized conspiracy to get around the Electoral College.

But here's what may be the most troubling question raised by this end run: What would happen to the two-party system? Right now, each party must achieve consensus within itself in order to nominate a candidate who can appeal to the broad middle of public opinion, 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.