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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2000 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The Electoral College: It's working again -- AS THIS YEAR'S exciting, though not inspiring, presidential campaign draws to a close, critics of the Electoral College are much too busy worrying about its theoretical dangers to notice how well it's working in practice.

Once again the way the creaky old Electoral College works is stabilizing the two-party system. Its machinery is pressing voters and candidates toward the middle of the political road, and squeezing out third-party candidates like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, the winner in each state takes all that state's electoral votes, which means third-party candidates have a hard time justifying their existence.

In California, a vote for Ralph Nader that might otherwise have gone for Al Gore is in effect a vote for George W. Bush -- in the same way a vote for Pat Buchanan in Arkansas is a vote for Al Gore.

If only Pat Buchanan were pulling his weight this year, the Bush people would be sniping at him the way the Gore people have started to go after Ralph Nader.

Given the way the Electoral College works in closely contested states, why would the savvy voter waste his ballot on either Buchanan or Nader? Other than sheer cussedness, no rational explanation occurs to me.

It would be different if presidents were elected by popular vote. Then every vote would count, not just those in swing states. And we'd have more third-party candidates than Tyson has chickens. But the Electoral College keeps the political fringe well-trimmed.

Because almost all the states cast their electoral votes as a block, a Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan has little chance to screw up the works. (Not to mention whoever is running on the Vegetarian or Prohibitionist ticket this year.)

One can already see how the electoral calculus is working against this year's leading third-party candidate, Ralph Nader. A vote for Mr. Nader might once have seemed only a nice gesture in California. After all, Al Gore had been visiting and courting and counting on California since long before this presidential campaign formally began. It was supposed to be safely in his corner.


But then George W. Bush began closing the gap. California was switching corners. Enough votes for Nader, rather than Gore, and Bush might carry it Tuesday.

California now has become one of those Battleground States, like Arkansas. Only with a lot more electoral votes. Nader's Raiders may yet succeed in turning California green -- for George W. Bush. The Republicans have decided it's worth investing $1.5 million a week in television commercials in California, lots of them (ital) en espaqol. (unital)

Mr. Nader's backers have noticed. And some of them have stopped backing him. What started out as an ideological gesture on their part, they now realize, could cinch close states for George W. Bush, their least-favorite candidate.

Unless a third-party candidate has a solid regional base, he doesn't have a chance. For examples, see Ross Perot in 1992 or Henry Wallace in 1948.

One of Ralph Nader's more prominent angels, businessman and philanthropist Greg MacArthur, had been buying full-page advertisements for Nader. But now he's pulled them from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner. The ads assured Nader voters that "a vote for Nader is not a vote for Bush,'' but Mr. MacArthur may no longer believe that, at least not in California.

Greg MacArthur may keep running ads for Nader in states where they won't make much of a difference in the final tally -- Texas and New York, for example -- but not in a suddenly close state like California. That's how the dynamic of the electoral system undermines support for third-party candidates.

And it's not happening just in California. Wherever Ralph Nader has cut into Al Gore's vote, the Democrats have dispatched their true believers on the left to tell folks who might vote Green that a vote for Nader is a vote for George W. Bush.

The message is going out in half a dozen states where the race has become close because of Ralph Nader's appeal -- Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico ... states once thought of as Gore country.

The anti-Nader word is being spread by Jesse Jackson and Joe Lieberman and Robert Redford and Gloria Steinem and Melissa Etheridge and Minnesota's Senator Paul Wellstone and ... anybody else in the Gore camp who might have some credibility with potential Nader voters. Everybody who's anybody has been called on to badmouth Darth Nader.

Even the candidate himself, Al Gore, now deigns to mention Ralph Nader, if only as a threat to his campaign and an ally of the hated Republicans.

No doubt about it, the Electoral College is working. Long before the votes are counted, it's shoring up the two-party system. Those who refuse to vote for the lesser of the two evils are being told they could wind up electing the worse.

What's not working in this country is the public financing of presidential elections. Ralph Nader isn't in this election to win -- he knows better than to believe there's any chance of that -- but to get on the public teat. If he can poll 5 percent of the vote, his party will be entitled to federal financing next time out.

That way, instead of having to depend on the Greg MacArthurs, Ralph Nader could campaign courtesy of you and me, fellow taxpayers. Just as Pat Buchanan is doing this year with $12.6 million of our tax money. Just as John Anderson, the third-party candidate in 1980, did long after his star had faded.

The Big Givers behind Ralph Nader intended only to help him and his Greens qualify for all that federal moolah next time around by getting 5 percent of the vote -- the way Pat Buchanan's Reform Party qualified for it this year.

But now Ralph Nader is tipping California, and maybe some other key states in this election, away from the left's other choice in this election, Al Gore.

It's not the Electoral College that needs to be abolished -- it's working beautifully -- but federal financing of presidential campaigns. It's another one of those "reforms'' that only make things worse. Like abolishing the Electoral College.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate