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Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2000/ 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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When it's broke, fixing it wouldn't offend the Framers -- ALEXANDER HAMILTON wrote that the electoral college system would prevent " . . . cabal, intrigue and corruption" and afford a "moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Hamilton and his fellow statesmen feared that a popular vote would result in some backwoods adulterous yahoo assuming the presidency. Mr. Clinton has pretty much shot the forefathers' theory. "Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity" now occupy the White House and a cabal of Democratic lawyers in Palm Beach now creates intrigue for Florida's 25 electoral votes.

As a strict constructionist, my defense of the constitution is unwavering but grounded in contemporaneous statements of the drafters. I call for reform of the electoral college because the drafters' intentions are defeated by the current system. While the rule of law must be honored in this election, we should consider change because, for the third time in our history, a candidate who won the popular vote struggles electorally. Mr. Gore is a liar who should not be president, but the rule of law rules.

The electoral college has not been a bad system. There is some merit to the "if it ain't broke" argument. Presidents who did not win the majority of the popular vote include Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, and Lincoln, who had the lowest vote total of any president (39.79%). Then again, Clinton and Nixon are also in this group.

But the founders had no moral, political, philosophical, passionate or even unanimous conviction to the electoral college. It came about because: our forefathers knew George Washington would be president no matter what bizarre ritual they inflicted; they were tired; they were deadlocked; and they knew important legislation such as alt-fuel vehicle programs waited in the wings.

Those who refuse debate on this aspect of the Constitution out of respect for the founders should understand there were no rabid fans of this jerry-rigged system.

Much has changed since the college's creation. Those changes have remedied the founders' worries. Slow communication and lack of information about candidates led to the idea of electors -- talented statesmen, placing the interests of the nation above their individual state's "favorite son," would find an effective leader. Mass communication has changed the need for controlling who actually votes. Those women from Palm Beach who are whining about losing their vote for "Al Gore and 'Al' Leiberman" are not fully informed. But they could be.

There were also no political parties in 1787 and parties have served a screening role while currying national favor for candidates. They do so with voting in primaries and the general election. All pretense that we are voting for statesmen as electors is gone. They are now simply nameless and faceless minions of popular vote. With electoral votes sealed up by winner-take-all popular votes, the electors have become a rubber stamp finality. They not a deliberative nominating body the founders envisioned. Winner-take-all popular votes produce what has been universally feared and likely to occur in this presidential election: the popular vote candidate loses the electoral college. The founders wanted the president to have the support of all citizens, in media parlance, a mandate, but under winner-take-all (followed in most states), the candidate with lesser support can win as did Harrison, Hayes, and possibly Bush.

The founders' fear that smaller states would lack representation is exacerbated under the current electoral system. Voter turn out currently has no relevance. In 1960, Mississippi and Kansas each had 8 electoral votes, but Mississippi had 25% turnout while Kansas had 70%. A California voter has 2.663 times the potential for determining the presidential outcome than a citizen of Montana. The electoral college defeats one man/one vote. If Mr. Gore wins, he will do so carrying only New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and 13 other states. Gore carried the country's special interest borders. Mr. Bush carried its heartland but fights for victory only in Florida.

The founders' contemporaneous writings reflect fear of corruption, vote recounts, and resulting delays in popular votes that would cripple the nation. Their fears are manifest in the very system they envisioned as a resolution. Florida is the epicenter of charges of corruption, vote recounts and unsurpassed power - just in the hands of a few inept women in Palm Beach who can't punch a ballot -- all for Florida's 25 electoral votes. The founders designed a perfect system for what they intended to prevent. It's time for a change.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings