Let Election Passions Subside Before Calling For End To Electoral College


This year's presidential winner will prevail by only the slimmest of margins.

Nevertheless, the Constitution is clear: The candidate who wins a majority of electoral votes will be the next president. It would be inappropriate to ignore the Constitution or seek a retroactive change in the rules in an effort to influence the outcome of Election 2000. If there is to be any change in the method of electing the president, it can only occur for the next election.

The closeness of both the popular and electoral vote has understandably renewed debate about the propriety of the Electoral College system of electing the president. Under that system, each state is given an electoral vote for every U.S. Senator and Representative it has. Most states, except Main and Nebraska, award them on a winner-take-all basis.

Though hardly perfect, the Electoral College has withstood the test of more than two centuries. It was born of the Founders' desire to carefully balance the interests of large and small states and unify the nation. It forces candidates to wage campaigns that can appeal to the broadest and most widely distributed constituency across the country both geographically and ideologically.

Those advocating change generally propose one of two options.

The first would preserve the Electoral College, but would allocate electoral votes according to the results in each congressional district, rather than winner-take-all.

A second way to change the system replacing the Electoral College with a single, nationwide count of popular votes would require that the U.S. Constitution to be amended. But the direct-election has drawbacks, as well.

Direct elections could work to the advantage of more populous states, at the expense of less populous states. Presidential candidates could win by carrying just a few heavily populated states, even if the vote in the vast majority of other states were won by the losing candidate.

Direct elections would also make it harder to guarantee a legitimate outcome in a close election. It would reward massive vote fraud, since each fraudulent vote adds to the national total rather than just the state's total, as under the Electoral College system. Wholesale calls for nationwide recounts not just a recount in one state, like Florida could become common. The defeated candidate would undoubtedly search for disputed ballots in select, friendly jurisdictions across the land something that could protract the process and hurt its legitimacy.

Yet another problem with direct elections is its influence in spawning multiple political parties a problem that other democracies have experienced. While we currently require a majority winner in the Electoral College, the direct-election method does not. With potentially numerous minor party candidates taking a share of the vote, it is more likely that a candidate would enter office with less popular support than could occur under any scenario under the current system.

If a runoff election were added (to ensure that the winning candidate received a substantial share of the vote), fringe-party candidates could exert disproportionate power by throwing their support to candidates in exchange for backing an agenda outside of the mainstream.

The Electoral College can be validly criticized for giving more weight to some votes over others. For example, in South Dakota this year, one electoral vote was awarded for each 105,000 voters in that state. By contrast, one electoral vote in California was awarded for each 181,000 voters there. But, if equal-weighting alone were sufficient reason to abandon the Electoral College, it would also be a sufficient reason to abolish the U.S. Senate, which has two members from each state, regardless of population.

I believe we should be very cautious about ending a system that has worked so well for so long. And it should obviously come only after careful deliberation and only after the passions of this year's election have subsided.

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