Archive for Monday, December 4, 2000

Electoral College has shaped U.S. as we know it

With reforms we still would have had a President Nixon, but in 1960

December 4, 2000


— Go ahead, revamp the Electoral College. To see how stunning a change it could be, imagine no President Kennedy in 1960, or the House deciding four of the last eight presidential contests.

The tumultuous election of 2000 already has brought calls for reform or outright abolition of the Electoral College. But instead of just fixing a sometimes unwieldy system, change could create a very different United States, analysis of the latest unofficial election results suggest.

"Before you make a big change in institutions, you do some run-throughs and think about what would happen," cautioned Nelson W. Polsby, political science professor at University of California at Berkeley.

Whether changes could be made is far from clear. Reforms could be made by the individual states, but abolition would take a constitutional amendment requiring the very difficult-to-achieve approval of 38 states.

Here are the three basic choices:

l Replace the Electoral College with a direct vote.

l Keep the Electoral College and its 538 votes, but require each state to split them up, down to the tenth, according to its popular vote so California's 54 votes would wind up divided 29.0 for Gore and 22.5 for Bush.

l Keep the system but divide the votes by congressional district, as Maine and Nebraska already do.

Right now, if the nation had elected its president by direct vote, Al Gore would be the winner by 337,576 votes give or take a few thousand disputed Florida ballots.

If it had kept the Electoral College and split each state's electoral votes according to the popular vote, both Gore and Bush would be without an electoral majority (259.5 votes for Bush, 258.3 for Gore) and the election would go to the House where each state would get just one vote. (Nader's 14.5 votes, however, could decide the election.)

As for dividing states' electoral votes by congressional district, those numbers remain unclear. Presidential votes are not collected by congressional district, and take weeks or months to gather.

But while results of such changes now may be uncertain, the effect they would have had in the past can be nailed down.

Switching to a direct vote would not have altered one election back through 1960. The presidency hasn't been won by a popular-vote loser since 1888.

But the other two changes with variations being pushed by Republican leaders and left-leaning reformers would have meant a far different history.

Divide the electoral votes by congressional district?

That would have reversed the election of 1960 and put Richard Nixon in the White House, not John F. Kennedy, according to Polsby's analysis in his text, "Presidential Elections: Contemporary Strategies of American Electoral Politics."

In 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford would have tied in the Electoral College and sent the election to the House.

And what's wrong with that, asked Richard Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman who advocates such a change. "I think it's a good thing when the electoral vote total more closely conforms to the popular vote total." Carter got 50.1 percent of the popular vote, and Ford got 48.0 percent.

How about the idea of splitting each state's electoral votes according to its popular vote?

That would have sent four elections of the past eight (1960, 1968, 1992, and 1996) to the House.

Proposals to switch to a proportional breakdown have been supported by Presidents Nixon and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as several 1970s measures in Congress and one current measure in Washington state, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, which supports direct elections.

The Electoral College has faced criticism before, most recently with hearings in 1992 and 1997. Bills for direct elections made progress but died in the Senate in 1956, 1969 and 1979.

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