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Jewish World Review March 6, 2001 / 11 Adar, 5761

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

Leave well enough alone -- DURING the Florida election dispute we heard many calls to abolish the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton said her first major effort as a senator would be to lead such a move. Since then, she and other opponents have come to realize that enough small states would oppose such a move to make it impossible to ratify a constitutional amendment to abolish the College.

But that hasn't prevented some people from trying to tinker with the way states choose electors. Tom Squitieri of USA Today points out that "many Republicans and conservative groups have long advocated the system now used by Maine and Nebraska," which allocate electoral votes by congressional district. (The statewide winner in each of these states receives two electoral votes, corresponding to the state's two senators.) Maine adopted this system in 1972, and Nebraska in 1992.

In every election since, the statewide winner in these states has also carried all the electoral districts. But that record would surely change if other states adopted the Maine-Nebraska plan. Since Al Gore's photo finish defeat last year, it's Democrats who are showing a new interest in changing the winner-take-all system of allocating electoral votes. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 21 states are considering the Maine-Nebraska approach.

They've come the farthest in North Carolina, where Democrats hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Last week a bill to adopt the Maine-Nebraska model passed a House committee on a 14-10 party-line vote; it appears to be on a fast track to passage.

Democrats argue that under the winner-take-all arrangement, presidential candidates ignore states they don't think they can win. "The Gore people wrote North Carolina off, and the Bush people knew they had it. So we didn't see them," says state Rep. Paul Luebke. But other Democrats are more honest in their motivation, acknowledging that if North Carolina had used the Maine-Nebraska method last year, Al Gore would have won three of the state's 14 electoral votes--and the presidency.

But two can play at this game. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform notes that Republicans hold the governorship and both legislative houses in Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania--all states the Democrats won in the past three presidential elections. "Moving to a congressional district system in those states could move upwards of 20 electoral votes into the Republican column," Mr. Norquist says. "It would also reduce the incentive for voter fraud in Newark, Detroit and Philadelphia, since turning out phantom votes in major cities would no longer net you all a state's electoral votes."

I think my friend Grover is wrong in urging Republicans to take this course. Democrats could retaliate by passing similar bills in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi--states where Republicans presidential candidates routinely win but the Democrats control state government. The result would be a patchwork quilt of systems across the country that would be endlessly confusing and lead to presidential campaigns gaming the system.

It's time to nip this effort in the bud by pointing out the danger of having more states abandon their winner-take-all systems. While it's true that apportioning electors by district would more accurately reflect the popular vote in states, it's the essence of democracy that the winner gets 100% of an office's power. It makes little sense to complicate matters by awarding consolation prizes by state in the form of stray electoral votes.

Besides, if every state allocated its electoral votes by district, the results wouldn't necessarily be dramatically different. An analysis by USA Today using preliminary district data from local election officials concluded that a district system "would have given Bush the exact 271 to 267 margin he received under the current winner-take-all system." Other analysts say Mr. Bush might have gained perhaps two electoral votes.

The very uncertainty of who would have benefited is the major argument against adopting the district system. As my Journal colleague Gerald Seib points out, congressional districts are frequently gerrymandered by state legislatures aiming to help their party and protect incumbents, and basing the Electoral College on their bizarre composition wouldn't necessarily be a better expression of the people's will.

And if you thought Florida was confusing, consider that the convoluted boundaries of congressional districts would mean that in a close election it would take weeks to find out who won every electoral vote. By late December, many states still couldn't tell reporters who had won certain congressional districts because they usually cross several county, city and census-block lines. If after all that the election had turned out to be a near-tie, imagine the recounts in dozens of districts around the country.

As frustrating and flawed as our current system may appear, it's likely that the Founders got things about as right as they could have by creating the Electoral College. Democrats in North Carolina and Republicans in Pennsylvania should resist the urge to jockey for political advantage. Leave well enough alone.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund