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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Here we go again

What’s right with the Electoral College November 22, 2020 at 9:11 a.m.

It was wholly a pleasure--a stolen phrase--to read through the archives last week, to see what this column has said over the years about the Electoral College. We found this editorial from Feb. 18, 2004. Man, those guys could write. What can we say? We're jealous as hell. Which is a saying that we stole from Kane Webb. Here is that editorial, edited only for length because we can't shut up. If you're still pro-kill-Electoral College after this, you must live in California or New York or another large state that would gain a lot more clout under a changed system. Enjoy.--eds

IT HAPPENS every four years. The country is seized by what can only be called Fear of the Electoral College. The punditry, the professoriate, the Deep Thinkers and Worst Case Scenario crowd tend to grow feverish as election day approaches.

They all make the same old discovery in unison: This is no way to elect a president! It's unfair, undemocratic, illogical, and, oh, yes, the sky is about to fall! And we're all supposed to climb on top of the nearest chair and scream. Or at least amend the Constitution.

Never mind that the United States of America is itself an 18th-century invention that shouldn't work logically, any more than a bumblebee should be able to fly. It just does. Yet this familiar crisis is predicted every four years, right on schedule.

Familiar, too, is the proposed remedy: Dump the Electoral College and choose the president by popular vote.

Well, not all the critics of the Electoral College are quite that simple-minded. They do recognize the danger of just throwing a presidential election open to all comers and handing the prize to the candidate with the most votes.

Think about it: Suppose a couple of dozen candidates split the popular vote every which way, and we wind up with a president who polled, say, only 20 percent of the vote. Which is actually more than the current French president Jacques Chirac received in the first round of that country's last presidential election/round-robin/French farce.

That's why even those who would dump this country's Electoral College in favor of a popular vote would require a runoff if no candidate got 40 percent of the vote.

So why not do as the French do? Because:

  1. The Electoral College doesn't exist apart from the rest of the constitutional system.

Change one element, and you affect them all. Jettison the Electoral College, and you undermine the two-party system. Without the Electoral College, which gives the winner in each state all that state's electoral votes, there would be little incentive to put up just two candidates. If the popular vote were all, everybody could vote for their favorite candidate first time around--Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, Whoever.

There would be plenty of time to come back to the middle of the political spectrum and settle for a George W. Bush or John F. Kerry the second time around.

Boy, wouldn't everybody be surprised when one or the other "major" candidates, or neither, made it into the runoff? In the last French election, the respectable if colorless left-of-center candidate didn't. A xenophobic right-winger (Jean-Marie le Pen) did. In the runoff, the electorate got a choice between right and righter. In the continental circus that is American politics, all cards could turn out to be wild.

  1. The Electoral College tends to be blamed when a state can't count its votes. See Florida in 2000. Or three states that figured in the electoral crisis of 1876, when the returns from Louisiana, South Carolina, and, yes, Florida were still in dispute amidst the last throes of Reconstruction in the South.

At least the Electoral College confines such fights over contested votes to decisive states. There's no percentage in contesting votes nationwide. But suppose the presidential election hinged on disputed vote totals across the country, or on just a few thousand in traditionally suspect locales like South Texas or Cook County, Ill., in addition to south Florida? Every presidential election could go on as long as the last one, if not longer. A note to all those who thought the 2000 election was a confused mess: If the Electoral College is junked, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

  1. Just imagine the deals that could be cut between the first and second rounds of such a presidential election. A couple of presidential elections have wound up in the House of Representatives--1800 and 1824--and both were marked with some fancy negotiations or worse. "Corrupt Bargain!" the Jacksonians cried when they lost in 1824.

But those were long-ago exceptions to a system that, almost every other election year, has gone so smoothly, quickly, and fairly that most Americans may have no idea how the Electoral College works. Maybe we should examine it before we discard it. Because without an Electoral College to effectively limit the field to two candidates from the first, the negotiating that would go on before a runoff might make Corrupt Bargain sound like an understatement.

  1. For all its ups and downs over the past two centuries, the Electoral College is a product of tradition, change and adjustments over the years--in short, hard-won experience. A straight popular vote for president is one of those bright, shiny ideas that, as good as they look in the abstract, have never been tested in reality.

No doubt a number of unintended consequences are out there waiting to happen if the country changes the way it elects a president. But one is easily predictable:

Presidential candidates would campaign mainly in the country's great cities if the popular vote were all. Why campaign nationally, in every region and state, appealing to every local interest, if only the sheer number of votes counted, and not where they came from? Why would a presidential candidate come to a state like Arkansas, or New Hampshire, or Tennessee, when he could be campaigning on the coasts, or in the great cities, where the people are?

But a republic is more than rule by the numbers. As Edmund Burke put it, "The Constitution of a State is not a problem of arithmetic." Rather, it is a matter of checks and balances, majority rule but minority rights, and keeping all that in mind.

TO CONSIDER any electoral system only in the abstract is like looking at an illustration in a biology textbook: The real thing can be quite different, and messier. Would a patient want a doctor who'd studied only the drawing, or who'd studied his specialty in isolation, rather than as part of a complex organism? That's what debating the Electoral College apart from the whole political system is like, and the results can be just as dangerous.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton recommended the Electoral College as a brake on a fractious, undisciplined democracy driven and riven by its passions. The Electoral College, introduced in the 18th century, still performs that function in the 21st.

For all its creaking parts, this antique system has proven its worth in election after election, yet we're told to trade it in on a theoretical model not yet fully designed, let alone tested. Let's pass. Some of us would prefer our political systems, like our bourbon, well aged.

But it's an election year and once again we're being told to drop this old antiquated system--our elite tend to assume Old and Antiquated are synonyms--in favor of the French mode. How many Republics have the French had by now? Five? We lose count.

Americans are still on our first, in large part because we do not discard our institutions lightly.


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