- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

In the aftermath of the Election 2000 fiasco, there are already calls for re-examination of our Constitution's Electoral College system for electing the president. Any such discussion should include not only an analysis of the Electoral College system itself, but also of its history and the role it has played in the creation of our federal system of government.

First, it should be noted that there have been over 700 bills introduced in Congress during the past 200 years to abolish or "reform" the Electoral College. Each one has failed. Hillary Clinton's proposed bill to abolish the Electoral College will be the 701st attempt to undermine federalism.

One of the more recent attempts to reform the Electoral College was in 1956. The opposition to this attempt was led by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who made an impassioned plea to preserve our federal system. He noted that the Electoral College was part of the "Grand Compromise" at the Constitution Convention, at which the small states insisted upon equal representation in any national government. When representatives of the large states began insisting upon representation by population alone, the representatives of the small states threatened to walk.

What finally convinced the small states to participate was the offer by the large states to enter into a Grand Compromise, the two cornerstones of which were the creation of the U.S. Senate, which gave each state equal voice regardless of population, and the Electoral College system of electing a president which was based on the equal state representation in the Senate.

When John Kennedy led the opposition to attempts to abolish the Electoral College in 1956, he noted that "It is not only the unit vote for president we are talking about, but a whole system of government power. If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements of the solar system, it is necessary to consider the others."

In other words, the Electoral College cannot be looked at in isolation, but rather as part of our entire federal system which was so conscientiously worked out by the constitutional framers. If "reformers" are truly willing to undermine our federal system on the alter of the principle of "one man, one vote," the first place to start would be to abolish the U.S. Senate (which incidentally, is a plank in the Green Party platform). Once the U.S. Senate is abolished, its twin cornerstone in our federal system, the Electoral College, would also fall as an integral part of what John Kennedy called a "whole system of government power."

One of the great myths about the Electoral College is that it was originally designed to ensure that an intellectual elite would vote for president. While it is true that Alexander Hamilton did express that idea, others like Madison viewed the Electoral College as a vehicle for the expression of the popular will. Indeed, the Constitution specifically allowed for the designation by state legislatures of popular voting for electors (and which every state has done since the Civil War era).

Rather, the primary concern of the Founding Fathers was that any president elected would have the support not only of a concentrated mass in population centers, but would rather have support in every region of the country. Indeed, it rejected a proposal for a rotating president from each region of the country in favor of the Electoral College. The Founding Fathers wanted to avoid a situation in which a candidate who had overwhelming support in one region could be elected in the face of strong opposition in other regions.

In many respects, we have been spoiled by the Electoral College system which almost always ensures an instant winner on the day after the election. Even in elections which are very close in the popular vote , the electoral vote has almost always been so substantial that the winner is recognized without waiting weeks for each individual popular vote and absentee ballot to be counted.

Indeed, in the 1960 election, in which the popular vote was incredibly close, former-President Richard Nixon declined to contest the election not so much because he was magnanimous, but because even if he found enough votes to reverse the Illinois vote count, he would still be facing an overwhelming defeat in the Electoral College.

If people are concerned that once every hundred years there is a very close vote in the Electoral College, imagine the daunting task of having to count every single hamlet and precinct in the United States under a pure popular vote system. Indeed, it was calculated that had a popular vote system been in place in 1960, and Nixon had contested the very narrow popular vote, thus necessitating a national recount, it would have taken 14 to 16 months to select a president.

If the objection to the Electoral College is that once a century a popular vote winner fails to receive the electoral vote, this result could almost always be avoided if every state followed the lead of Maine and Nebraska, and apportioned their electoral votes according to the popular vote. Every state is free to do that now, without abolishing the Electoral College or undermining federalism.

Robert Hardaway is a professor at the University of Denver Law School and the author of "The Electoral College and The Constitution."



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