- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

Here we are again, edging toward a constitutional upheaval. The Gore camp has all but said that even if George W. Bush wins the Florida recount, and so the Electoral College vote, that Mr. Gore's slim popular vote lead would render Mr. Bush's election illegitimate. Illegitimate because it doesn't reflect the "will of the people."

Already there is talk of doing away with that creaky old Electoral College, an embarrassing reminder that our forefathers did not completely trust the idea of empowering the masses. We're much too modern for such things now. We have "the will of the people," as defined by the Gore camp.

What a difference having the shoe on the other foot can make. You won't see Al Gore wrapping himself in the Constitution the way he and other Clinton supporters did during the impeachment debate. You won't hear any of the intricate analyses of our forefathers' intentions, and most of all you won't be hearing that solemn mantra about not "lowering the bar" (coupled with a stagy hand-gesture for emphasis). Mr. Clinton's supporters successfully insisted that impeaching a president for anything less than high crimes and treason would unfairly and irresponsibly lower the Constitution's standard (the "bar") for impeachment.

Trashing the legitimacy of the electoral vote or suggesting we eliminate the Electoral College because of this election's close vote isn't just a stab at lowering the bar for presidential election, it's a self-serving and irresponsible attempt to take a shortcut around the Constitution. Like it or not, the Electoral College serves a purpose or two, by balancing out some advantages of large states over small ones, and by tempering the popular will.

How? Under Electoral College rules, every state gets the same number of electors as it has members of Congress. That means states with small populations, like Alaska, still get at least the minimum three electors (one for their House member and one each for their two senators) even if they have only few hundred thousand citizens. A big state like California rates 54 electors, because its population of some 32 million entitles it to 52 representatives in the House and two senators.

Because of the electoral system, some 200,000 votes could win Alaska's three electoral votes, while it takes upwards of 11 or 12 million votes to capture California's 54. So an individual voter's impact is diluted in California and magnified in Alaska, whether the election is close or not.

Big states still do have an advantage, just not so large as they would under a system of direct election by popular vote. That's not something you are likely to hear from people advocating direct presidential elections, though.

Like other features of our government, the Electoral College is a blunt instrument, and there have been calls for reform since Jefferson's time. But in a very real way, the system imposes a higher bar in the election process by forcing candidates to consider not just the wishes of individual voters in areas with large populations, but those of the larger community of states as well. By law, candidates cannot win election outright without getting a majority of electoral votes. (The House of Representatives decides the election when no candidate gets the 270-vote majority.)

Winning that majority of electoral votes is part of what our federal system of government is all about, and it has been a burden or an advantage for presidential candidates for two centuries. You would have had to be living in a cave not to have heard all the talk in the media about strategies for winning the electoral vote. Mr. Gore's strategy depended on winning big states with large urban populations. It was his call, and he did so in an effort to use the electoral system to his advantage. That his tactic didn't work well enough was his mistake, not the system's.

Knowing this, can the Gore camp reasonably claim that the 200,000 or so more popular votes Mr. Gore appears to have won (out of over 100 million cast) somehow don't count because of the Electoral College system? Certainly not. In the first place, without those popular votes he probably would not be as close to a majority of electoral votes as he now is. Or to turn the argument on its head, by this logic all the losing candidate's votes won't "count" either.

While the Gore camp maintained that their slim popular vote edge nationally should translate to victory for Mr. Gore, it studiously ignored the fact their candidate is claiming a popular vote victory with only 49 percent of the vote. That seems well short of the mark, considering their attempt to wrap themselves in the mantle of "the will of the people."

But then if the Florida recount finally does go their way, the Electoral College majority would automatically legitimize Mr. Gore's election, even though he failed to get a simple majority of the popular votes. That too is something the Electoral College was designed to do. What's more, it's the law of the land.

Bruce Wetterau is the author of Congressional Quarterly's Desk Reference on the Presidency.



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