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Paul Greenberg / March 9, 2009

Save the Electoral College

For about as long as some of us can remember, there have been proposals around to junk the Electoral College and find some other way to elect a president of the United States. Whether a new system should be devised was a national debate question when I was in high school, and that was a long, long time ago. Yet for all the dissatisfaction with the Electoral College over the years, no one has been able to sell the American people on an alternative.

The alternatives do change from time to time, and their very prolixity is another sign that devising a better system isn’t easy.

How about a straight popular vote, winner takes all, no matter how slim his margin of victory? But that change could attract so crowded a field of presidential candidates that it might take only a small percentage of the votes cast to win. Would we really want a president elected with, say, only 20 percent of the vote?

OK, how about a Plan B? Why not have a run-off if the leading candidate got less than, say, 40 percent of the popular vote? (Which might have eliminated Abraham Lincoln in a run-off, since by the best guesstimates he got only 39 percent of the popular vote in 1860 yet a majority of the Electoral College.) The French have such a system – and risk having their presidential run-off feature the two most extreme candidates, the many moderate candidates having split the moderate vote.

Then there was the proposal to elect the president by congressional district, but that approach wouldn’t guarantee that the winner would have more of the popular vote nationwide, either.

This year’s alternative to the Electoral College is to get states with a majority of the electoral votes to agree beforehand to cast them for whichever candidate polls the most votes nationally. Even if that candidate didn’t carry all those states.

It would be hard to imagine a scheme that did more to destroy the integrity of the ballot. For it would give the winner of the popular vote nationally the electoral votes of states he didn’t carry, overturning the will of the majority in those states. This plan isn’t so much a reform as a legalized conspiracy to get around the Electoral College.

But here’s what may be the most troubling question raised by this end run: What would happen to the two-party system? Right now, each party must achieve consensus within itself in order to nominate a candidate who can appeal to the broad middle of public opinion, and so gain a majority of the Electoral College.

But if a presidential candidate needed only a plurality of the popular vote, the candidates on the fringes would be encouraged. Because they’d no longer need the backing of a national party and a majority of the Electoral College to win – just more popular votes than the rival with the next highest number of votes.

Does anyone envy the way the French elect their president? Look what happened in that country’s national election back in 2002: Between them, the three leading candidates barely managed to poll half the vote. What happened to the other half? It was divided among the remaining 13 – count ‘em, thirteen – presidential candidates.

Result: The second round of voting pitted a less-than-popular conservative against a right-wing radical. It was as if a presidential election in this country had been determined by the Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans. The principle of One Person, One Vote was upheld, all right, and it produced one big mess.

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

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

Edmund Burke tried to warn 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 usually performs its valuable function smoothly. So smoothly that lots of folks have no idea how it really works, which is a shame because the Electoral College needs every defender it can muster.

And yet the country is in danger of approving a sneaky way around the Electoral College that could have all kinds of unintended, and unpleasant, consequences. What we have here is an abstract idea untested by our actual, historical experience as Americans. Or as Mark Twain once said of another terrible idea: “It is irregular. It is un-English. It is un-American. It is … French!”


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