Jewish World Review August 19, 2004 / 2 Elul 5764
What's right with the Electoral College
It happens every four years. The country is seized by what can only be called Fear of the Electoral College. The punditry and the professoriate begin the quadrennial chant: This is no way to elect a president! It's unfair, undemocratic, illogical, and the sky is about to fall! We're all supposed to View With Alarm. Or maybe amend the Constitution.
The remedy? Dump the Electoral College and choose the president by popular vote.
Well, not all the critics of the Electoral College are quite that simple-minded. They do recognize the danger of just throwing a presidential election open to all comers and handing the prize to the candidate with the most votes.
Think about it: Suppose a couple of dozen candidates split the popular vote every which way, and we wind up with a president who polled, say, only 20 percent of the vote. Which is actually more than the current French president, Jacques Chirac, received in the first round of that country's last presidential election/round-robin/French farce. Some mandate, some legitimacy.
That's why even some who would dump this country's Electoral College in favor of a popular vote would require a run-off if no candidate got 40 percent of the vote.
So why not do as the French do? Because:
1) The Electoral College doesn't exist apart from the rest of the constitutional system. Change one element, and you affect them all. Jettison the Electoral College, and you undermine the two-party system. Without the Electoral College, which pretty much gives the winner in each state all that state's electoral votes, there would be little incentive to have just two parties. If the popular vote were all, everybody could vote for their favorite candidate first time around-Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, whoever.
Boy, wouldn't everybody be surprised when one or the other "major" candidates, or both, failed to make it into the run-off? In the last French election, the respectable if colorless left-of-center candidate didn't. A xenophobic right-winger (Jean-Marie le Pen) did. In the run-off, the electorate got a choice between right and righter. In the great poker game of American politics, who knows how wild the two remaining cards would be?
2) At least the Electoral College confines fights over contested votes to decisive states. There's no percentage in contesting votes nationwide. But suppose the presidential election hinged on disputed vote totals across the country, or on just a few thousand in traditionally suspect locales like South Texas or Cook County, Ill., in addition to South Florida?
Every presidential election could go on as long as the last one, if not longer. A note to all those who thought the 2000 election was a confused mess: If the Electoral College is junked, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
3) Just imagine the deals that could be cut between the first and second rounds of such a presidential election. A couple of presidential elections have wound up in the House of Representatives-1800 and 1824-and both were marked with tricky negotiations or worse. "Corrupt Bargain!" the Jacksonians cried when they lost in 1824, and the most famous duel in American history-between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton-stemmed from the election of 1800.
But those were long-ago exceptions to a system that, almost every other election year, has gone so smoothly, quickly, and fairly that most Americans may have no idea how the Electoral College works. Maybe we should examine it before we discard it. Because, without an Electoral College to effectively limit the field to two candidates from the first, the negotiating that would go on before a run-off might make Corrupt Bargain sound like an understatement.
4) For all its ups and downs over the past two centuries, the Electoral College is a product of tradition, change and adjustments over the years-in short, hard-won experience. A straight popular vote for president is one of those bright, shiny ideas that, as good as they look in the abstract, have never been tested in reality.
To consider any electoral system only in the abstract is like looking at an illustration in a biology textbook: The real thing can be quite different-and messier. Would a patient want a doctor who'd studied only the schematic drawing, or even one who'd studied his specialty in isolation rather than as one part of a complex organism? That's what debating the Electoral College apart from the whole political system is like, and the results can be just as dangerous. It's easy enough to criticize an old system with all its flaws, quite another to design a new one we could be sure would work anywhere near as well.
But it's an election year, and once again we're being told to drop this old, antiquated system (our elite tend to assume Old and Antiquated are synonyms) in favor of the French model. How many Republics have the French had by now? Five? One loses count. We Americans are still on our first, in large part because we do not discard our institutions lightly.
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