- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

The people of America sent a message Nov. 7, but it's taking a little time to figure out exactly what it is. As we learn about dangling chads, the drumbeat is also beginning about the reform of our election process. Should we change Election Day from Tuesday to Saturday? Should we open and close the polls at a uniform time nationwide? More fundamentally, should we scrap the Electoral College?
This final idea would require amending the Constitution. As we consider that, we should begin by examining the intent of its framers.
Their clear vision during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was that we remain a collection of states united in their common interests. In fact, the delegates in Philadelphia never really considered any form of electing the president that did not involve a process by which the states themselves had the final say, with the particular concern of small states holding sway throughout. The Electoral College was established as the best means by which to ensure popular expression of will, weighted by the influence of individual states. Although many schemes were considered and rejected, Alexander Hamilton pronounced of the final effort, "if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent." He was right. Consider how closely the fortunes of both Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush were tied to the decisions of the people of smaller states such as West Virginia, New Mexico and Oregon. Each candidate spent considerable time in these states. I traveled to each on behalf of Mr. Bush, and was joined by governors and other surrogates.
The combined population of these three states is about 6.8 million. By comparison, the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area has 15.3 million inhabitants. Will another candidate for the highest office of the land ever set foot in tiny West Virginia were the fortunes of the election based solely on the popular vote? Presidential races in the future would instead be the pursuit of the vote in major urban centers of the country, characterized by frequent run-off elections as proliferating smaller party candidates siphoned off sufficient votes to prevent an absolute majority. This is often the unfortunate result in many countries around the globe and one we've avoided for two centuries. In just three of 53 presidential elections has the process established in the Constitution failed to yield an electoral majority. That's not a bad record, considering the emergence of political parties, the establishment of universal suffrage and the rapid growth of our country.
What has not changed is that we remain a confederation of states with common purpose and that we have a willing minority; that is, a system with enough checks and balances that those who lose do not feel threatened or disenfranchised. Scrapping the electoral system would gravely undermine that principle. In fact, that's why attempts to change the process will fail. The approval of the legislatures of three-fourths of the states is needed to amend the Constitution. Just 14 states could sink the proposition. Twenty states have a population of fewer than 3 million and would see little interest in ratifying their loss of influence over the selection of the president.
This does not mean there is nothing we can do to improve the process for those rare eventualities such as we face today. To reach a more expeditious conclusion in a close election, we might define a finite period for the casting of federal votes. Establishing a uniform voting period tied to a single time zone (9 to 9 CST, for example) would ensure that all Americans are voting in the same real-time period. Setting the election on a Saturday, instead of Tuesday, should be considered. We might also require absentee ballots to be postmarked on a specified date prior to the election.
These simple changes may have the benefit of more open access and uniformity while confounding the ability of news organizations to affect the vote in one part of the country based upon early and erroneous calls from another region, as may well have happened regarding Florida Nov. 7.
We might consider one other modification. In two states (Maine and Nebraska), electors are chosen in a bifurcated way. Of each state's total, two are chosen by the winner of the popular vote statewide, with the rest allocated to the winner of each congressional district. If this procedure were in place in every state, candidates would not only focus on individual states to cobble together a victory, but be able to spend time in potential strongholds within a state he or she might otherwise lose. Such reforms as these are worth considering; abolishing the Electoral College is not. The Constitution is infused with the framers' understanding that popular passion must be modulated to ensure true consensus in what they knew would be a country of diverse tendencies. There are many examples of this, but none more fundamental to our federal identity than the creation of the Electoral College.
They knew that it may sometimes be difficult to select a chief executive through the sheer popular will, and they developed a systematic process to handle those cases. Indeed, it was only after considerable deliberation and explicit rejection of every imaginable alternative that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention settled on the system, as one of the last matters resolved prior to the completion.
In the heat of a closely contested election and its aftermath, we're unlikely to improve upon their work. This matter should be debated, and we should seek improvements to ensure fairness and stability. However, I believe the current process is not some 18th century anachronism ill-suited to modern times, but rather the practical expression of our essence as a nation.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican senator from Texas.

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