Save the Electoral College

Posted: Apr 04, 2007 12:01 AM

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.

But if a presidential candidate needs only a thin plurality of the popular vote, splinter parties and extremist candidates would be encouraged. They'd no longer need a majority of the Electoral College to win, just more popular votes than the candidate with the next closest number of votes. Does anyone in this country envy the way the French elect their president-by popular vote in multi-party elections?

Look what happened in France's last national election in 2002: Between them, the three leading candidates barely managed to poll half the vote. What happened to the other half? Did it just disappear, like growth in the French economy? No, it was divided among the remaining 13-count 'em, thirteen-presidential candidates. (All it takes is 500 signatures from elected officials to get on the presidential ballot in France.)

A record number of the usually highly engaged French voters abstained from the presidential race-28 percent. And a bumper crop of splinter parties on the left-Greens, Trotsykites, Communists, the usual French proliferation-kept the favored Socialist out of the run-off. Instead, the second round of voting pitted a less-than-popular conservative against a right-wing radical, and the French were stuck with a choice between two unpalatable candidates, neither of whom could be said to represent any kind of national consensus. It was as if a presidential election in this country had been determined by the Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans.

Inspector Clouseau could doubtless deliver a perfectly logical Gallic defense of such a system: Une personne, une voix! But to those who know their Burke and, yes, their Tocqueville, a better word for electing a president this way is wacky. Also, dangerous.

If just the popular vote counted, every close presidential election might prove as messy as the one in 2000, with the vote totals in every state as hotly contested as those in Florida were that confused year.

Edmund Burke tried to tell us: "The Constitution of a State is not a problem of arithmetic." Rather, it is a way to take into account the many dimensions of an electorate and forge a consensus that is greater than all its parts. That's where the Electoral College comes in. It may be an antique piece of clockwork, but it performs a valuable function within all the gears and levels of our constitutional system. It needs to be saved, not sacrificed to an empty slogan.