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Archive for Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Keep the Electoral College

December 12, 2000

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A reader who may have missed the point of a column left me a lengthy voice-mail message in which he explained the merits of the Electoral College.

This guy tabbed me as an Electoral College opponent because I voiced surprise at the lack of public indignation over a presidential election that produced a result so rare that it hadn't happened since 1888: The apparent loser of the election won more votes than the winner.

That's because the nationwide popular vote is not the determining factor in selecting a president. The U.S. Constitution calls for presidents to be chosen by a majority of 538 electors who cast their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.

Americans who slept through history class on the day that the Electoral College was discussed might be shocked to learn that all those voters who trekked to the polls on Nov. 7 were acting in an advisory capacity.

But I digress. My Electoral College column was merely a comment on what appears to be a mostly ho-hum attitude by the American people in response to the ever-nearing reality that George W. Bush will be inaugurated next month as the 43rd president of the United States, even though Gore captured more votes.

Bush if his certified victory in Florida survives legal challenges won the election by collecting 271 electoral votes to Gore's 267.

Before Election Day, many pundits and other deep-thinkers in the media had predicted that the public would be outraged if the popular-vote winner ended up losing the election. Those who expected controversy are now scratching their heads over the public's calm acceptance of this constitutional quirk.

Personally and I feel the need to clarify this because of that phone message I like the Electoral College. I know that others have been crusading to get rid of the electoral system and have offered solid arguments in support of their position.

In fact, the proposal to amend the Constitution to allow direct election of the president with a runoff, if necessary, makes perfect sense.

Why do I like the Electoral College? Well, one reason maybe the main reason is that the nation's founders dreamed it up and put it in our Constitution. I trust their judgment, even a couple of centuries later.

As a practical matter, I like the electoral system because it gives a candidate for president some options.

Gore won the popular vote at least in part because his strategy for winning the Electoral College was perfectly suited to racking up large volumes of votes. Gore sought to accumulate the 270 electoral votes needed to win by concentrating on states that could deliver the most electors California and New York, to name the most obvious and which also could deliver the most individual votes.

Bush's strategy was different. With his home state's 32 electoral votes in the bag, Bush set out to construct an electoral majority by winning states that had fewer electors but together could offset Gore's dominance in high-population states.

This surely suppressed Bush's popular-vote total but added up to victory in the Electoral College.

We could argue all day about who has more of a mandate a president who won more votes but won fewer states or a president who won more states but won fewer votes. Whatever. I just think it's a good thing that there's more than one way to win the presidency.

My voice-mailer suggested that direct election of the president would produce campaigns that focus on the big cities and ignore the rest of the country. Good point.

Of course, that's basically what Gore did, and it almost worked. So maybe it doesn't really matter if we keep the Electoral College or abolish it.

And if it doesn't matter, why not keep it?




Bill Thompson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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