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Arguing the Electoral College: Con

by Joyce Appleby on Nov 12, 2000

Joyce Appleby

         The 2000 presidential election is unique in the annals of American
history. Because of its indeterminacy?  No. Its singular distinction comes
from the fact that never before have both the popular and electoral votes
been close in the same election.

         When John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon in
1960, his 48.7 percent of the popular vote triumphed over Nixon's 48.5
percent, but Kennedy won 303 electoral votes, 85 more than Nixon.
Similarly, earlier close popular votes yielded major differences in
Electoral College strength.

         The simultaneous convergence of near-ties in the 2000 presidential
race denies the winner the clear-cut authority of either the nation's
informal popularity contest or its official Electoral College count.

         This disturbing outcome may also alert the nation's voters to the
real flaws in the Founders' ingenious invention, the Electoral College,
detailed in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.

         Previous criticism of our peculiar way of electing a president
through 50 separate contests has focused on the winner take-all policy in
48 of our 50 states. This policy of treating 51 percent of the votes the
same as 75 percent can thwart the popular will when one candidate garners
the requisite number of electoral votes in states that are evenly divided
while the opponent overwhelming carries his or her states.

         Election 2000 has thrown a searchlight on a far graver defect in
the Electoral College: the two-elector bonus every state gets for its
senators.  The Constitution assigns electoral votes to states on the basis
of the number of its representatives in Congress plus its two senators.
After every census, congressional strength is readjusted to reflect
population shifts. Not so the bonus senatorial electors; they never change.

         If population were evenly dispersed among the United States, the
bonus senators wouldn't make much difference. But, as this election has
made crystal clear, voters are clustered in a handful of big states. The
figures: 29 states have fewer than 8 electors. Only seven have more than
twenty.

         What does the math show? That our 31 smallest states get a
25-percent boost in their electoral strength from the senatorial bonus
while California gets only 4 percent and New York, Texas, Illinois,
Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida get 6 percent to 9 percent.

         This campaign has also made starkly apparent just how much the
Electoral College skews the candidates' campaigns. Why did Gov. George W.
Bush and Vice President Al Gore return again and again to Texas, Iowa,
Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Missouri and Michigan? Because their
electoral votes were up for grabs while New York, Ohio, California and most
of the states in the West and South had already formed majorities for one
or the other candidate.

         Can we expect reform of this dreadful system soon? Probably not.
Those 31 states to which the Constitution delivers a 25-percent gift of
electoral  strength also have the power to determine the fate of the
necessary constitutional amendment to eliminate the college. Amendments
require the approval of three quarters of the states. Montana, Wyoming,
Rhode Island, South Dakota and Alaska are unlikely to line up to give up
their electoral heft. Tradition, constitutional reverence, protection of
state differences, and anti-big city sentiment can all be expected to serve
their cause.

         But there's one thing — after this election — that the
Electoral  College's supporters won't be able to say:  if it's not broken,
don't fix it.


Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).