Archive for Sunday, November 12, 2000

Let the debate begin

November 12, 2000


Replace the Electoral College

By Joyce Appleby

The 2000 presidential election is unique in the annals of American history? Because the vote's not yet final? No.

Its singular distinction comes from the fact that never before have both the popular and electoral votes been close in the same election.

When John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, his 48.7 percent of the popular vote triumphed over Nixon's 48.5 percent, but Kennedy won 303 electoral votes, 85 more than Nixon. Similarly, earlier close popular votes yielded major differences in Electoral College strength.

The simultaneous convergence of near-ties in the 2000 presidential race denies the winner the clear-cut authority of either the nation's informal popularity contest or its official Electoral College count.

This disturbing outcome may also alert the nation's voters to the real flaws in the Founders' ingenious invention, the Electoral College, detailed in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.

Previous criticism of our peculiar way of electing a president through 50 separate contests has focused on the winner-take-all policy in 48 of our 50 states.

This policy of treating 51 percent of the votes the same as 75 percent can thwart the popular will when one candidate garners the requisite number of electoral votes in states that are evenly divided while the opponent overwhelming carries his or her states.

Election 2000 has thrown a searchlight on a far graver defect in the Electoral College: the two-elector bonus every state gets for its senators. The Constitution assigns electoral votes to states on the basis of the number of its representatives in Congress, plus its two senators.

After every census, congressional strength is readjusted to reflect population shifts. Not so the bonus senatorial electors; they never change. If population were evenly dispersed among the United States, the bonus senators wouldn't make much difference. But, as this election has made crystal clear, voters are clustered in a handful of big states.

The figures: 29 states have fewer than eight electors. Only seven have more than 20.

What does this math show? That our 31 smallest states get a 25-percent boost in their electoral strength while California gets only 4 percent from its senatorial electors and New York, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida 6 percent to 9 percent.

This campaign has also made starkly apparent just how much the Electoral College skews the candidates' campaigns. Why did Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore return again and again to Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Missouri and Michigan?

Because their electoral votes were up for grabs while New York, Ohio, California and most of the states in the West and South had already formed majorities for one or the other candidate.

Can we expect reform of this dreadful system soon? Probably not.

Those 29 states to which the Constitution delivers a 25-percent gift of electoral strength also have the power to determine the fate of the necessary constitutional amendment to eliminate the college.

Amendments require the approval of three-fourths of the states. Montana, Wyoming, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Alaska are unlikely to line up to give up their electoral heft.

Tradition, constitutional reverence, protection of state differences and anti-big city sentiment can all be expected to serve their cause.

But there's one thing after this election that the Electoral College's supporters won't be able to say: If it's not broken, don't fix it.

Joyce Appleby is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her e-mail address is

Keep the Electoral College

By James M. Banner Jr.

An institution created generations before any of us were born in a nation entirely unlike our own naturally puzzles and frustrates us.

Set against our highest cultural and political ideal, that of democracy, our way of choosing the president seems fatally flawed. It also provokes frequent calls for its abolition, especially in times of political crisis like this one.

But efforts to abolish the Electoral College have always failed, either in Congress or in the states. The last constitutional amendment that sought to abolish the college, that of the late 1960s, passed Congress but failed to be ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the states.

Why is that?

The American people wisely respect their Constitution, recognizing the wisdom of the founders' tendency to err, if at all, on the side of caution. Critics say that those men, James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" premier among them, feared democracy decisions affecting the public good arrived at through the vote of average men.

More accurately, they feared impulse and impetuosity, and the prospect of voter manipulation.

The Electoral College provided stability to their daring republican experiment.

More than 200 years later, there's still something useful, perhaps even attractive, in having an institution whose members can deliberately and calmly assess the outcome of an election and judge its impact upon the public weal. More important, the existence of the Electoral College creates some valuable "requirements" for presidential candidates.

As we've just seen, it forces them to attend to the voters in small states. It leads them to campaign everywhere, not just through television, but in person.

To be sure, the states with the largest number of electoral votes California, New York, Texas, and, yes, Florida sometimes get the lion's share of attention, but not this year.

Battleground states, many of them small, like Iowa and Oregon, received more attention just for having an electorate that has not made up its mind.

Were elections decided by popular vote alone, candidates would be inclined to concentrate their efforts in the most populous states and cities.

Voters in rural areas could forget the candidates' concern with farm issues. States with low populations like Rhode Island or Delaware disappear into their larger neighbors during presidential campaigns, and distant places like Hawaii and Alaska could forget about ever seeing the presidential campaigners.

Then there are times like these when the popular and electoral votes roughly coincide in their closeness, each being proportional to the other. We should not forget that this very rarely happens.

Usually the winner gains a decisive number of electoral votes even when the popular vote is close.

This normal pattern has solidified the president-elect's victory and bestowed a constitutionally mandated authority.

Those who would have the Electoral College abolished like to point to its uniqueness, as if this sole aspect, but not other ones, of American distinctiveness is a bad thing. But when was uniqueness a disqualification for American pride?

And, anyway, since we have used, with little ill effect, this constitutional institution for more than 200 years, the burden of proof as to the happy results of its abolition must fall upon those who would abolish it.

And, while they speak only of the benefits of its end, how can they know what unfortunate consequences might also follow its repeal?

James M. Banner Jr. is an independent historian in Washington. His e-mail address is

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