- - Thursday, July 9, 2020

Convoluted, cumbersome, just plain crazy — the way the United States elects a president is, understandably, widely disparaged. In fact, 1792 is the last time the process worked the way the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended. But, less understandably, we still use that complicated problem-fraught method.

In “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?,” Harvard history professor Alexander Keyssar sets out to explain the persistence of a technique that in public opinion polls has never accumulated support from a majority of Americans. 

More constitutional amendments have been proposed in Congress about Electoral College reform than any other subject. Political scientists have long investigated the way the Electoral College has shaped U.S. government, but, Mr. Keyssar notes, historians, with their penchant for looking for the reasons for change not absence of change, have largely spurned examining the long story of attempts to amend or do away with the presidential election process and why they failed.

It is a story, Mr. Keyssar writes, “that is not only about the weight of the past but also about the particular difficulty — widespread in democracies — of altering electoral institutions once they are already in place. It is a multilayered tale of idealism and dedication, missed opportunities, mistaken predictions, ingenious yet disingenuous arguments, an ever-present tension between democratic values and partisan advantage.”

His telling, artfully balancing broad themes and specific anecdotes, is both readable and valuable; knowing how we got here is a useful prerequisite to charting how to get where we want to be.

Mr. Keyssar sees the stretch of failed attempts to abolish or amend the Electoral College as falling in three distinct eras.

The first begins with the writing of the Constitution itself, when the electoral college approach was unenthusiastically adopted; “it was an eleventh-hour compromise by gifted but tired men who had difficultly figuring out how to elect a president and had to bring their work to a close.” Weakness in the Constitution’s selection method was evident after the elections of 1798 — where the system produced a president of one party and a vice president from the opposing camp — and 1802, when the electors threw the decision to the House of Representatives.

Efforts didn’t manage to effect a change in the way the president was elected, but did achieve ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804, electing the vice president by a separate ballot rather than giving the job to the runner-up in the electors’ presidential balloting.

Era two consists of most of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when the prevailing idea was not to get rid of the Electoral College, but to end the winner-take-all policy under which a candidate who gets the most votes in a state gets all of its electoral votes. The preferred alternative: giving each congressional district’s votes to the person who carries that district.  Measures to demand proportioning a state’s electoral vote came close to passage, but never succeeded. (Maine and Nebraska do it that way through state legislation.)  

For the past 70 years — Mr. Keyssar’s third era — the emphasis of reformers has been to simply award the presidency to the candidate who garners the most votes nationwide. A constitutional amendment to that effect passed the House of Representatives in 1969 but opposition, primarily from Southern conservatives, doomed it in the Senate. 

Since then, there has been little appetite in Congress to reform the process. Action to select a president by popular vote has been confined almost entirely to the states; 15 have enacted measures promising all of their Electoral College votes will be awarded to the candidate getting the most votes nationwide — as long as states agreeing to the scheme would make up a majority of the Electoral College. 

That state action scheme avoids one of the perils of abolishing the Electoral College, which deserves much more consideration than it has gotten, ie: that the present provisions give the states extensive autonomy in deciding details of voting, autonomy which, Mr. Keyssar warns, “would almost inevitably be diminished by federal reform.”

Anyone advocating ending the Electoral College must weigh how that could affect local rules on such matters as the number of polling places, the hours they will be open, identification requirements (only Virginia and Washington accept employer IDs), and even age (eight states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the general election).

Mr. Keyssar’s long voyage through the ups and downs of presidential election reform efforts leaves him persuaded that “significant changes to the electoral system are both warranted and long overdue.” 

But he notes that the times when a switch to electing the president by nationwide popular vote have come closest to reality are when partisanship has been at a low level and “the national parties were in flux and lack unity.” He acknowledges that that does not describe the United States in 2020; therefore “the extreme polarization of the polity does not bode well for institutional changes that would have to be bipartisan and carefully reasoned.” 

• Daniel B. Moskowitz, a Washington journalist, has long specialized in writing about legal affairs.

• • •


By Alexander Keyssar

Harvard University Press,$35,531 pages

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