Debating the Electoral college

Posted: Nov 20, 2000 12:00 AM
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the presidential election, it is safe to assume that there is going to be a serious debate next year on replacing the Electoral College. It will pit those supporting simple majority rule against those favoring retention of a presidential election system that the American Bar Association once called "archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect and dangerous." Defenders of the status quo will have their work cut out for them. Polls have consistently shown large majorities of Americans favoring direct election of the president over the Electoral College. As long ago as 1944, the Gallup Poll found 65 percent of Americans in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. The most recent poll, by ABC and the Washington Post in 1988, found 77 percent of Americans preferring direct election to the current system. Thus far, advocates of the Electoral College largely have relied upon reciting the views of the Founding Fathers to support their case. However, given the drastic decline in educational standards over the years, few Americans today are likely to even know who James Madison was, let alone find his logic supporting the Electoral College in the Federalist Papers to be persuasive. Indeed, a recent Portrait of America Poll found that only 51 percent of Americans would even vote to ratify the Constitution, were it put up for a vote today. Twenty-two percent would get rid of it altogether. The rest were unsure. If those who support the Electoral College wish to keep it, they are going to have to rely more on practical political arguments, and less on appeals to historical authorities. The best argument for the Electoral College is that residents of small states should forget about ever seeing another presidential candidate if we move to direct election. Everyone who lives in North Dakota or any other rural area effectively will be forgotten by a pure popular vote election system. Candidates will spend 100 percent of their time in populous states like California and in large metropolitan areas. This being the case, it is likely that there will be even more of a bias than there already is favoring candidates from states with large populations. We could easily end up with both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates being from California year after year, once the Electoral College is gone. It is extremely doubtful that any party could afford to nominate a candidate from small states such as Arkansas in the future. Furthermore, candidates will have an incentive to run up the vote in states where they are strong. George W. Bush, for example, would have changed his strategy to get as big a vote as possible in Texas this year, in order to offset Al Gore's votes in New York. It will be as if we changed the World Series from a system in which a team must win 4 games to one in which the total number of runs in all games played determines victory. As recently as 1997, a popular vote-type system for the World Series would have switched the winner from the Florida Marlins to the Cleveland Indians. Although Florida won 4 games to Cleveland's 3, Cleveland scored 44 total runs in the 7 games played to Florida's 37. Campaigns will change in other ways as well. Advertising necessarily will shift away from local markets to national media. The principal impact of this will be to raise the cost of campaigning. If candidates must use all their funds to buy advertising on expensive primetime network television shows and on stations in large media markets, such as New York and Los Angeles, it is going to be very much more costly to run for president than it is now. If the cost of running for president rises, then there is going to be increased pressure on taxpayers to chip in more money for federal subsidies and more complaints about fundraising abuses, soft money and the like. It is probably inevitable that television networks will be forced to provide "free" advertising for candidates. Regional and third party candidates will have far more influence than they do today under direct election. It would be possible for a candidate to run up a large vote in only a few large states and become president without getting any votes at all in a majority of states. Our two-party system effectively would collapse, with the chance that a Jesse Ventura, who became governor of Minnesota with only a plurality of votes, could win nationally. Finally, many future presidents will lose legitimacy when they win by a small margin in the national popular vote. One of the virtues of the Electoral College is that it tends to magnify the winner's victory, giving him greater stature and making it easier to govern. For example, in 1960, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by less than 0.2 percent of the total popular vote, but won by a much more comfortable margin of almost 16 percent of the Electoral College. More recently, Bill Clinton won by just 5.5 percent of the popular vote in 1992, but by more than 37 percent in the Electoral College. Those supporting direct election and abolition of the Electoral College will be deluding themselves if they think it would have prevented this year's election debacle. The problem this year was simply that the American people divided their votes almost equally between Gore and Bush. Absence of the Electoral College would not have made the outcome clearer. The Electoral College serves this national well by ensuring that presidents must campaign in and represent a broad cross-section of America. There may be a better system of electing a president, but direct election definitely is not one of them.