- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2000

Members of the Electoral College met to cast their votes for president on Dec. 18, and let's hope they enjoyed it. If some important people get their way, it will be the last time that ever happens.

The Electoral College normally gets about as much attention from the American people as the Music City Bowl. But this year, voters were surprised to find out that they don't actually elect the president, the electors do. They were even more bewildered to learn that you can come in second at the polls and still take the oath of office on Jan. 20.

Apparently these were not welcome discoveries. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 6 out of 10 Americans think this 18th-century contraption should be dismantled and replaced with what most people probably assumed we already had: direct election of the president.

Critics of the status quo have plenty of standard-bearers in Congress. The first proposal offered by the new senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a constitutional amendment to scrap the Electoral College, which gives more weight to voters in small states (say, Arkansas) than in large ones (like New York).

She has found kindred spirits in fellow Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, which has more people than even New York, and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, which ranks fifth among the 50 states in population. Any takers in Alaska or Vermont?

It's not surprising that a majority of Americans doubt the value of the Electoral College which is, after all, an anti-majoritarian device. Nor is it surprising that Democrats are disenchanted with a mechanism that denied the presidency to Al Gore, even though 539,897 more Americans voted for him than for George W. Bush.

The Electoral College, however, has some virtues that are not easily appreciated at first glance. One is that it obligates candidates to seek out votes in places that Washingtonians normally regard as uncharted wilderness. Iowa and Arkansas saw a lot more of the presidential campaign this year than they would have under a direct election system, which would encourage candidates to jet from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and back, in a continuous loop. I can promise you that if the Electoral College is junked, Las Cruces, N.M., which greeted Mr. Gore on Nov. 2, will never lay eyes on another presidential candidate.

The Electoral College, by requiring a majority rather than a plurality of electoral votes to win, also promotes two parties with broad ideological appeal across the entire country. Under direct election, multiple parties might flourish, as they do in many other countries, fostering civic fragmentation and ideological polarization. In a country as large and diverse as this one, unifying institutions are invaluable and the two major political parties, which compete everywhere, do help tie the nation together.

Direct election is a big change to remedy a minor ill the fact that once or twice a century, a very close presidential election ends with the runner-up in the popular vote capturing the presidency. But there is something to be said for having a president who can't claim that whatever he wants to do reflects the clearly stated will of the people. If that breeds humility in the Oval Office, the nation can only benefit.

But the most important reason for keeping the old system is that it works tolerably well, and we really can't predict what would happen without it. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, "A page of history is worth a volume of logic," and history shines a kind light on the Electoral College. One thing we've learned in the last three decades as we've reformed election and campaign finance laws is that what is intended is not necessarily what will follow.

Watergate-era reforms meant to reduce the role of money in politics actually forced candidates to spend more and more time in the grubby business of fund-raising. Limits on campaign contributions from individuals just meant politicians had to hit up more people to raise the same amount of cash. The "reforms" also had the completely unexpected effect of giving a huge advantage to rich people, who cannot legally be prevented from spending as much money of their own as they want to run for office.

Pass a law that has harmful consequences and you can always repeal it. But once you pass a constitutional amendment, undoing it is nearly impossible.

The flaws of the Electoral College are real but modest, which means that any improvement we could attain by scrapping it likewise would be no more than modest, while the unanticipated harms could be vast. It's a mistake to chase after perfection when what we have is good enough.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide