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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2000 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Electoral college ensures democracy -- WHENEVER a presidential election gets close, someone who claims to care a lot about "democracy" starts complaining about how our "outdated" and "archaic" constitution threatens it. It would be a disaster, the argument goes, for a president to narrowly win the popular vote but lose the tally in the electoral college.

This happened once - 112 years ago - and we've been close a few times since World War II. But the odds of such a thing happening have never been higher than this year. Bush and Gore are in statistical dead-heats in nearly 20 states and all but deadlocked in national polls.

This disturbs small-"d" democrats like Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal. He recently proposed scrapping the electoral college because he thinks candidates should seek the support of the people rather than states.

Big "D" Democrats are grumbling, because Gore's lead in heavily populated states like California and New York could translate into a popular-vote win, but an electoral-college loss. Joe Andrew, the chairman of the Democratic Party, said the other day on CNN, "Well, clearly, all of us who believe in democracy fear that and hope" it doesn't happen.

Really? Personally, I believe in democracy, and I see nothing inherently wrong with a split result. And I'm not alone. The Founding Fathers saw nothing inherently disastrous about someone being sent to the White House who didn't command a majority of the popular vote.

In fact, many of our greatest presidents received less than 50 percent of the vote. Lincoln barely got 40 percent. And those who admire President Clinton should note he never got 50 percent.

As Walter Berns, America's leading constitutional scholar in defense of the electoral college, said in congressional testimony in 1997, "I may be blind, or deaf, but I have yet to encounter an opponent of the electoral college who argues that a president elected directly by the people will be a better president."

That's not the point, say opponents of the electoral college. They argue democracy should never be diluted. But we put all sorts of limits on voting and democracy. Ex-convicts can't vote in some states. People under 18 can't vote. California, with over 33 million residents, has the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming, which has about a half million. How democratic is that?

The point is that the American political system was designed to temper many of the excesses of democracy. That's what constitutions do. In a pure democracy there's no need for a constitution, because whatever the people decide at a given moment goes.

In fact, under our constitution, the most powerful government officials - federal judges - aren't elected at all and can't be democratically removed. People who play lip service to direct democracy think of voting as a personal statement, an expression of "my right to vote." But as the scholar Herbert Storing pointed out decades ago, "The framers of the Constitution thought it at least as important to consider the output of any given electoral system. What kind of men does it bring to office?"

The electoral college is perhaps the key mechanism for bringing good men - or perhaps the least bad men -to office. Under the Framers' system, demagogues are shunted to the sidelines.

For example, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who exploited regional racial animosities in the South, could have been a major spoiler in 1968 under a pure democratic system. In September of 1968, Wallace was polling in the mid-20s, but voters soon recognized that because of the electoral college, their vote would be wasted on Wallace because he could never win enough votes outside his home base to upset the electoral college. Worse, they reasoned, Wallace voters could split the "conservative" vote.

But in a direct-democratic election the George Wallaces of the world have a distinct advantage. For each additional candidate in the race, the number of votes it takes to win drops. In a two-way race, a candidate needs 51 percent to become president. In a three-way race a candidate needs 34 percent to win (or make a runoff). In a four-way race, it could drop down to 26 percent to make a runoff.

Moreover, obscure fringe candidates are bestowed wildly disproportionate power. A David Duke or an Al Sharpton could exact what Walter Berns calls a "bigot's ransom" on the majority candidates in exchange for his support.

In this sort of system, democracy wins in the sense that no vote is wasted, but the republic could lose because the candidate least concerned with the good of the republic has an easier chance of winning or making an impact. I say better to have a little less democracy and a little more wisdom.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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