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If this system sounds Soviet, it's because it shares with Lenin's utopia some of the same rationalist mistrust of the people. Related Gully Coverage

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Election 2000

Curse of the Electoral College

by Kelly Cogswell

NOVEMBER 10, 2000. Every four years, in November, Americans go to the polls to elect their President. Or so they think. In fact, as the current electoral mud-slinging in Florida keeps reminding the nation, all we do is elect a bunch of party loyalists in each state (538 at last count), each of which, in turn, will cast a vote in December for whomever in their party is running for President.

These loyalists are the state electors. They constitute the Electoral College, a baffling institution that Americans rediscover every four years and promptly forget (not this year, I suspect). The votes they will cast a month from now are none other than the 538 juicy electoral votes coveted by all presidential candidates. To be elected President, or Vice President, a candidate must win an absolute majority (51%) of the electoral votes nationwide (270).

leninIf this system sounds vaguely Soviet, it may be because it shares with Lenin's utopia some of the same rationalist mistrust of the people coupled with a need for constant popular legitimization. The analogy ends there, though. The American system is also the product of some pragmatic horse-trading during the drafting of the Constitution, in 1787, fueled, in part, by Southern states' worries that direct election of the president would mean a country controlled by the more populous Northern states.

Electors, the infant nation was told by its founders, were to be the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each state. They would select the president based solely on merit and without regard to state of origin or political party. In a country with no strong political parties, a fledgling government, widening territories, undeveloped communications, and, most importantly, two different socioeconomic systems (slave vs. free labor), state electors enjoyed clout for some time.

More than two centuries later, they are now hand-picked among the faithful by the presidential candidates to perform a purely ceremonial function. Although not legally bound to vote for their masters in most states, only a handful has ever dared bite the hand that feeds them. As a New York Democratic Party elector recently quipped, "I guess I could do it, but then I'd have to leave the state."

The Numbers Game
The number of electors per state ranges today from 3 (Wyoming) to 54 (California). This is because each state is allotted a number of Electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always 2) plus the number of its U.S. Representatives (which depends on the size of the state's population). Sparsely populated Wyoming has only 1 Representative while populous California has 52; both have the inevitable 2 Senators.

Partisans of the Electoral College system point that it gives slightly more say to rural, less populated states like Wyoming, forcing presidential candidates to take their interests into account and campaign there.

Critics like Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar counter that candidates today don't appeal so much to state interests, which anyway are hard to define, "as to demographic groups (elderly voters, soccer moms) within states," and that direct popular elections would still encourage them to take into account regional differences.

Other critics say that candidates mostly campaign in person where they can reach the most people, and that their forays into least populated areas are just photo ops—something which would continue even if the Electoral College were abolished, as TV and the Internet would still need to be fed.

Winner Takes All
Whoever wins a state's popular vote wins all of its electoral votes. "Whoever," let's not forget, does not mean in this case George W. Bush or Al Gore directly, but the electors who have pledged to vote for one or the other. The two exceptions to the winner-takes-all electoral vote system are Maine and Nebraska, where two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remainder by popular vote within each Congressional district.

If no presidential or vice presidential candidate wins the required absolute majority of electoral votes nationwide—an unlikely event given that the Electoral College system more or less shuts out third parties—the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, respectively, selects the victors. Neither decision needs to heed popular will as expressed in the popular vote. This is another much criticized feature of the Electoral College system.

The current electoral system can only be changed if the Constitution is amended. This would require a two-thirds approval by Congress (both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives), and ratification by three-fourths of the states. No small feat in a country with a healthy lack of appetite for constitutional tampering.

Winner's Loser
demonstrator, FloridaIn the current election, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore has received more than 200,000 more popular votes nationwide than his opponent, the Republican Bush, out of a total of almost 100 million votes cast. While being most popular may personally comfort Mr. Gore, it will not get him to the White House. Winning Florida's 25 electoral votes is the only thing that will. The same can be said of Bush, who is now unofficially ahead of Gore in Florida by a mere 327 votes, out of an estimated 6 million cast in the state.

If Bush ultimately prevails in Florida, he would be the first U.S. President since 1888 to have won the White House while losing the popular vote, and only the fourth in history to do so.

Final, official results are not expected before November 17, when the count of absentee ballots is due in Florida. Unless, of course, the Gore camp decides to fight their case in the courts—a decision so fraught with peril that only the most egregious voter fraud could make it politically viable.

Already The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which endorsed Gore, have warned him against getting the courts involved. Gore, they say, should look the other way, forgive minor vote tampering peccadilloes in Florida, and graciously concede a Bush victory when the final tally is done. That would make Gore look statesmanlike and lead to a landslide victory by him over a weakened, discredited Bush in four years.

Shrewd advice, provided that no egregious fraud is uncovered by the Gore people now scrutinizing the Florida vote. Looking the other way could then be perceived as complicity in a corrupt system. Besides, voters have rights, not just candidates.

Outright fraud—which so far has not been found—would force the Justice Department to step in and would also unleash a flood of private lawsuits. The machinery thus set in motion would irresistibly drag the country even deeper into uncharted constitutional waters, regardless of what Bush, Gore and their respective parties think is best for their political future.

Florida Brouhaha
leninIf the Florida mess were to end in court, which is doubtful at this point, and there's no President elect by January 20th, Inauguration Day, Bill Clinton will not be asked to stick around until the matter gets sorted out. Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House will be the one keeping the presidential chair warm.

Were Mr. Hastert to decline or, God forbid, be run over by a truck on his way to work, the job would go to the Speaker pro tem, Senator Strom Thurmond, the 98-year old, right-wing Republican firebrand from South Carolina. Last year, Senator Thurmond told his puzzled constituents that the Soviet Union still existed.

The voting brouhaha in Florida these days, where a single vote could decide who is the next President of the United States, has been more than two centuries in the making. As U.S. presidential races get increasingly vicious, expensive, and strategically and technologically manipulative, the venerable electoral system designed by the nations founders may begin to creak loudly and often.

Related links:

For "Voting Irregularities in Palm Beach, Florida," a statistical analysis of the mistaken Buchanan vote by Greg D. Adams, of Carnegie Mellon University.

For the U.S. Electoral College. Box scores and much more since 1789!

State Electoral
Alabama 9
Alaska 3
Arizona 8
Arkansas 6
California 54
Colorado 8
Connecticut 8
Delaware 3
D.C. 3
Florida 25
Georgia 13
Hawaii 4
Idaho 4
Illinois 22
Indiana 12
Iowa 7
Kansas 6
Kentucky 8
Louisiana 9
Maine 4
Maryland 10
Massachusetts 12
Michigan 18
Minnesota 10
Mississippi 7
Missouri 11
Montana 3
Nebraska 5
Nevada 4
New Hampshire 4
New Jersey 15
New Mexico 5
New York 33
North Carolina 14
North Dakota 3
Ohio 21
Oklahoma 8
Oregon 7
Pennsylvania 23
Rhode Island 4
South Carolina 8
South Dakota 3
Tennessee 11
Texas 32
Utah 5
Vermont 3
Virginia 13
Washington 11
West Virginia 5
Wisconsin 11
Wyoming 3

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