An illegitimate President?

Posted: Nov 10, 2000 12:00 AM
For at least six months, we've been saying, "It will all be decided on Nov. 7." As I write, on Nov. 8, the presidential election has not been concluded and the winner remains unknown. It may remain so for many days, as tallying the Florida results turns out to be more difficult than first anticipated. There are thousands of uncounted absentee ballots still coming in. They are legal if postmarked up until Nov. 7. And then there's the little problem of the 3000 or so mostly Jewish voters in Palm Beach who accidentally gave their votes to Patrick Buchanan -- for his best showing anywhere! Teams of lawyers are now descending on Florida from both campaigns. I have in front of me a copy of the defective ballots the Floridians supposedly used. It's difficult to tell, from this remove, if they were truly faulty. But even assuming that they were, it would be a colossal mistake to change those votes after the fact. In an ideal world, no irregularities would mar voting in any part of the nation. But democracy is a messy business even in the best of countries, and so fraud and cheating do happen. (I once served as a poll watcher and heard plenty of stories about the Democrats' dirty tricks.) But to undo an election based upon vote fraud or cheating is to open a can of worms. Both sides do it. On Nov. 7, polls were kept open late in Missouri, permitting more Democrats to vote. Shall we nullify those votes? The charges and countercharges would never end, and the finality elections provide would be compromised. This morning also brings grumbling about the Electoral College. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek warned darkly on NBC during the wee hours of Wednesday morning that a presidency achieved without a popular vote win would be considered illegitimate and would cause a crisis. Hardly. Bill Clinton received about 41 percent of the vote in 1992. If he suffered a lack of legitimacy, it was for other reasons. As to the Electoral College, well, it wasn't a secret. Everyone understood that these are the rules we elect presidents under. Everyone further understood that it was theoretically possible to elect a man who received fewer popular votes than his opponent. On three occasions in our history, 1824, 1876 and 1888, it happened -- and the republic still stands. Besides, it seems fetishistic to focus on popular vote margins in a race this close. Should everything hinge on several hundred votes out of nearly 100 million cast? This brings us to the beauty of the Electoral College. It ensures that our presidential elections are national in scope. Few Americans and even fewer foreigners understand the Electoral College. It was intended to provide a buffer for popular passions. An elite group of electors would be able to substitute their judgment for the people's, and thus prevent tyranny. That function has withered, and rightly so. Today, electors nearly always vote for the person who received the majority of his state's votes. But he doesn't have to. It is still perfectly legal for electors to vote their conscience -- and that perhaps needs to be changed. In a contest such as we are living through, the idea of the "rogue elector" -- until now the subject only of law review articles -- seems quite possible. More than that, it is easy to imagine candidates pressuring, bribing or otherwise influencing electors to change their votes. So a reform requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won his state would be helpful -- or we could simply move to a point system and skip the individuals altogether. But if the Electoral College were eliminated in favor of direct election, the nation would lose a source of unity. As it is, rural and small states receive time and attention during presidential races only because of the electoral count. Without the college, presidential contests would focus on New York, Texas, California, Illinois and Florida. Direct election would increase the power of big cities as against suburbs and rural areas, with the potential for regional strife and alienation. We are alienated from one another quite enough already -- as this election shows. Rural and urban, married and single, religious and secular, black and white -- all vote very differently from one another. Eliminating the Electoral College would only exacerbate our divisions.