This is what the electoral college is supposed to

Posted: Nov 21, 2000 12:00 AM
Like many people, I've been on tenterhooks waiting for New York's junior senator to weigh in on the Electoral College. Just days after her election, Hillary finally ended the suspense. She vowed to combat the Electoral College so that "the popular vote, the will of the people" will reign triumphant.

It should come as no surprise that Hillary opposes the Electoral College. Alexander Hamilton explained that the whole point of the Electoral College was to interpose "every practicable obstacle" to "cabal, intrigue and corruption." The roundabout method of choosing a president imposed by the Constitution was intended to frustrate "the adversaries of republican government" and prevent them from gaining "an improper ascendant in our councils."

Instead of relying upon "existing bodies of men who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes," the Constitution placed the power of selecting a president "in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America."

But it would not merely be a vote of the people because the framers feared that a direct popular vote would tend to reward candidates practiced at the "little arts of popularity," as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 68. The people would simply vote for electors, and the electors would have the "temporary and sole purpose" of choosing the president.

Though the system somehow let Bill Clinton slip through, the Electoral College has largely been free of the corrupting influences of concern to the framers. Electors have occasionally wandered off the reservation, as in 1988 when a lone Dukakis elector cast his vote for Lloyd Bentsen, but as a group they've been pretty incorruptible.

Electors have never been stolen outright by a Chicago mayor or Texas precinct captain -- as popular votes have been. No elector has never been convicted of taking bribes -- as members of the House and Senate have been with woeful frequency. The New York Times has never run an op-ed piece enthusiastically endorsing electors trading their votes -- as it did recently with regard to Nader and Gore voters trading popular votes across state lines.

The Electoral College is supposed to be enigmatic and complex -- the better to foil "foreign powers," "cabals," corrupters and other enemies of republican government. It remains to be seen if the Electoral College can frustrate the corrupt machinations on behalf of Al Gore.

Indeed, the current crisis foisted on the nation by Al Gore illustrates with some clarity the sort of mischief the Electoral College sought to prevent. The late Yale law professor Alexander Bickel argued that by tallying presidential votes state by state, the Electoral College would isolate the effect of voter fraud in any one state, legitimizing the election results.

If the entire raw national total were up for grabs, the whole country would have to be initiated into the Chicago vote-stealing customs now being introduced in Florida. Mysterious ballot boxes would be turning up in every black church in America. Hapless old people nationwide would be taking to the airwaves to claim they were really trying to order a Whopper but were tricked into voting for Pat Buchanan.

The Electoral College also tends to turn narrow popular-vote margins into definitive electoral victories. Even assuming Gore's popular vote advantage holds (and Bush's numbers would surely be higher if the media hadn't incorrectly given Florida to Gore early election night), the candidates' nationwide tallies are separated by a sneeze. At a certain point you have to cut off debate or there will be chaos and endless rioting.

People can't live like liberals, endlessly jawboning hypothetical possibilities and refusing to submit to rules. There have to be institutional boundaries to curtail endless navel-gazing. If a lawyer is one day late filing the complaint, Granny loses her slip-and-fall case. That's how rules work. Legitimate claims -- which Gore's is not -- are sometimes devalued for a social order that we prefer.

The Electoral College establishes a set of rules. It acknowledges the states as separate and sovereign entities casting all their votes for a single candidate. Even assuming Gore's ephemeral fraction of a percentage point advantage in the popular vote holds, Bush took 30 states, and Gore won only 20. The Electoral College hands a decisive win to Bush.

The final tally could yet make Bush the popular vote winner and, in any event, he has already won more votes than Bill Clinton got in either of his two tries. (You remember Clinton -- he was the one they said we couldn't impeach because that would overturn the results of an election.)

Much more horrifying than the curious prospect of a popular vote "winner" losing the electoral vote is that fact that Hillary "Cattle Futures" Clinton is going to be a U.S. senator, and we've learned to live with that.